Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go is generally pegged as a comedy-drama and while I suppose that’s technically correct, I think it’s a deceptive tag. This is essentially a drama with a comedic sounding premise, a comedian as its star, and there are funny—sometimes bitterly so—things in it. There is a difference. But having said that, I’ll also say that it’s one of the most penetrating and accomplished films of the year—and Ferrell’s performance is part of the reason for that. He is here easily as good as he was in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and possibly better—even though the film itself never reaches the heights of Forster’s film. Then again, it never tries to, so the comparison is a little unfair—even though it’s inevitable.
The film is based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” and without having read the story myself, I can say it has the feel of Carver. Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a salesman for a sizable company who is fired after an event that may or may not have happened during a business trip to Denver. The problem is that Nick—a recovering alcoholic who fell off the wagon on that trip—can’t remember whether or not the claims made by a female co-worker are true or not. His company is already unhappy with his decreased—or at least stalled—productivity and his drinking. So he finds himself suddenly without a job, which, of course, is a perfect excuse to dig that “emergency” flask of whatever out of his trunk and resume drinking. That in turn prompts him to slash the tires on his boss’s vintage Mustang with his personalized Swiss Army knife going-away gift from the company, which unfortunately gets stuck in the tire.
Things get worse. He arrives at his house only to find all his belongings in the yard, the locks changed, and his wife—fed up with his drinking and his apparent faithlessness—gone. This, of course, offers even more “reason” to drink, which he proceeds to do on the front lawn in the comfort of his fake leather recliner. The neighbors complain, the cops come and try to arrest him, but his AA sponsor Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), who happens to be a police detective, intervenes. Frank even buys him some time by providing him with a five-day yard sale permit—suggesting that Nick use the time to pull himself together and figure out what to do. “What to do” in Nick’s mind is to stay put and drink, a situation which becomes more comfortable after blackmailing his neighbor (Stephen Root) into providing him with electricity.
A series of small events—mostly involving a sympathetic new neighbor, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and a kid, Kenny Loftus (a sweetly touching Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Notorious B.I.G.), whose mother is the caregiver for a dying woman in the neighborhood—cause the bogus yard sale to turn into a real one and to start Nick rethinking his life. Both are things he approaches grudgingly at first. He keeps finding reasons not to sell things and keeps insisting that he and his wife will get back together. Slowly, however, he starts to come to terms with the truth and with the possible advantage of divesting himself of his “stuff” and starting over.
This is not a big movie. It’s very much an indie, and very much made of small touches that suggest more than they state. There are moments of heartbreaking humanity (the scene with Laura Dern as an old high-school classmate is remarkable), moments of bitter irony, moments of self-discovery, and a very realistic inconclusive ending. There’s also a plot twist that I’m not wholly sold on, but that’s a small flaw in an otherwise splendidly achieved film—and one that should in no way make you miss this film or Ferrell’s nuanced performance in it. Rated R for language and some sexual content.