Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Not a Happy Drunk: EVERYTHING MUST GO

Will Ferrell’s doughy features are most often seen twisted into caricature like his exaggerated masculinity in Anchorman and his endearing naïve innocence in Elf, his best comedies to date. When not seen in such embellished ways, he can take on a glum, locked-in quality. This is precisely what made his performance in 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction his best acting to date. In that film, he played a man stuck in a rut that slowly opens up though meta-fictional devices and allows him to learn how to better live life to the fullest. That film succeeds as much as it does through Ferrell’s endearing nature that allows an audience to see the possibility filtering through a sad-sack exterior.

There’s a similar quality to the performance in Everything Must Go, a film in which he plays an on-again off-again alcoholic who gets fired from his job and arrives home to discover that his wife has left him, changed the locks, and left most of his possessions on the front lawn. It just keeps getting worse from there. His bank account is frozen, his cell phone service is shut off, and his car is repossessed. Naturally, he decides to sit out on the front lawn and drink while stewing in his sadness.

His Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (Michael Peña) is a police officer who gets him a permit for a yard sale, which gives him five consecutive days to pick up his life (and his stuff) and get moving again. While he gets this unexpected chance to reexamine his life, he chats with a neighbor kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and a woman moving in across the street (Rebecca Hall) with a brief sojourn to reconnect with an old high school acquaintance (Laura Dern).

The cast is given the chance to do some nice acting and writer-director Dan Rush, making his filmmaking debut, can craft a nice looking frame from time to time. This is a film that has its focus on small character detail, the way a glass of beer becomes a temptation, the way a gift of a used camera becomes a small spark of connection between neighbors, and the way people grow apart or get closer in the tiniest of ways. But with all of the focus on small details, Rush completely misses the big picture.

This is a frustratingly schematic film that clunks from point A to point B in unconvincing ways. I believed the characters but I didn’t necessarily believe their emotional journeys. This may have grown out of the unbelievable nature of the central premise. If Ferrell’s wife moved out, why leave behind a trail of traps and catch-22s that leave him on the brink of disaster? This makes her a cruel, one-dimensional villain painted in broad, ugly strokes. The fact that she has nary a second of screen time only enhances the one-dimensionality of her character which stands in stark contrast to the more nuanced female roles from the likes of Hall and Dern.

Perhaps these problems arise from the act of expansion. Rush’s script is an adaptation of the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. In that story, a young couple comes across a drunken middle-aged man sitting amongst his belongings sprawled out on his front lawn. They spend some brief moments with him and move on. It’s short, evocative, and emotional. But it’s also believable in the way that it’s framed through the eyes of someone who see this curious sight. We’re left to wonder how the man ended up on his lawn under these circumstances. Rush’s film tries to show us how a person could get to this place and fails to convince, tries to expand a one-note character and instead gives us a half-believable protagonist antagonized by a one-note character. I appreciated the nice acting (especially from Hall and Dern, but Ferrell’s quite good as well), but I had a hard time caring.

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