Judge Clark Douglas must go! He's been holding it for the past hour!
Lost is a good place to find yourself.
"Fifty cents, and I'll throw in this floss."
Facts of the Case
Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell, The Other Guys) is having a terrible week. He recently slipped back into alcoholism after six months of sobriety, he just lost his job and he comes home to discover that his wife has locked him out of the house and thrown all of his belongings onto the front lawn. Oh, and then his company car is repossessed. As he attempts to come to grips with his situation, Nick camps out on the lawn in his suburban neighborhood and determines to stay there until he finds a solution or is forcefully removed. Either way, he's going to spend every last cent he has on six-packs to help pass the time.
Eventually, Nick decides that a yard sale is in order. Letting go of some of his treasured possessions will be difficult, but with the help of his dismayed AA sponsor (Michael Pena, Observe and Report), his pregnant next-door neighbor (Rebecca Hall, The Town) and a somber kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace, Notorious), he just might manage to dig himself out of his pit of personal despair.
Though Dan Rush's directorial debut Everything Must Go bears a few typical freshman mistakes, it successfully captures the spirit of Raymond Carver (whose short story "Why Don't You Dance?" serves as the basis for this film). Carver's fondness for minimalism, his deep understanding of alcoholism, his attention to the quiet desperation of ordinary Americans, and his unhurried matter-of-factness are all present. It isn't as ambitious or as satisfying as Robert Altman's Short Cuts, but then it never attempts to be. It also contains a surprisingly effective lead performance from Will Ferrell, one that runs even deeper than his fine work in Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction.
The Blu-ray case (and indeed, much of the film's marketing) promotes Everything Must Go as part quirky comedy and part inspirational film, which is understandable but not exactly honest. This is a deeply sad film, one that requires our character to wade through increasingly overwhelming miseries before he can kinda-sorta begin some first step towards recovery, possibly. The film is empathetic towards Nick but never softens the blow of his (largely self-imposed) situation. It is more intent on gently detailing the broken state of Nick's life than in providing him with an easy path to redemption (the whole "personal healing via heavily metaphorical yard sale" notion is much less blatant and indie-film obnoxious than one might initially suspect; this isn't a film which embraces simple solutions).
Technically, Everything Must Go is an alcoholism film, but its approach to the subject is much less melodramatic than films like The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses, or Leaving Las Vegas (not that it's superior to those superb efforts, mind you). Nick's alcoholism doesn't generally lead him to loud rants or wild misbehavior; it simply paralyzes any efforts of positive change and allows him to transform his sharply-defined problems into considerably hazier problems. If he is sober, it's because he's temporarily out of beer money (a category which any money at all falls under, of course). His AA sponsor has more or less given up on attempting to stop Nick from drinking, and now seems to have resigned himself to doing whatever he can to soften the blows life is handing the man.
Will Ferrell occasionally displays faint shades of his comic persona, but this is largely new territory for the actor. He constantly seems to have just a little bit too much sun in his eyes, and there's a weariness in his voice which suggests that he wouldn't have the energy to fix his problems even if a solution were handed to him on a platter. He seems to enjoy spending time with his neighbor, of course: she's good-hearted, attractive and doesn't yet know Nick well enough to have grown tired of him. As played by Rebecca Hall, the neighbor is well-handled and believable; not a guardian angel who happens to live across the street. Similarly believable is the kid played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, who is bright and quietly inquisitive but never precocious. There's also a lovely, heartbreaking scene featuring Laura Dern (Inland Empire) as one of Nick's old high school classmates; a pitch-perfect vignette built on a touching blend of regret, tenderness and hesitation.
Everything Must Go arrives on Blu-ray sporting a solid 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. Detail is spectacular throughout, particularly facial detail (something which you may notice given how frequently the camera settles into close-ups of Ferrell's tired, disgruntled face). The film's warm yet subdued palette is handsome, as a fairly ordinary suburban setting is bathed in an appealing Arizona haze. The film also sports quite a few nighttime scenes, and shading is quite strong throughout these moments (blacks are appreciably deep, too). Audio is also quite good, though the track is dominated by dialogue, a low-key score and a smattering of understated '60s and '70s tunes (largely plucked from Nick's vast record collection). Still, sound design is impressive when it does come into play and the track is very well-mixed. Supplements include a commentary with Rush and Michael Pena, an "In Character with Will Ferrell" (8 minutes) featurette, a typical "Behind the Scenes" featurette (12 minutes) and some deleted scenes. None of this stuff is particularly impressive, but it's passable enough.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Rush maintains an impressive sense of control over the film's tone, but there are a few moments in which you wish it were just a little bit more emotive. I'm not even sure if this is a complaint, as a lack of restraint could have easily harmed as many moments as it might have improved. With a less restrained emotional core, the film probably would have been stronger during its big moments but less consistent overall.
However, there are just a few touches (perhaps just enough to build a trailer around) which seem to tip the film into cutesy indie-flick territory (for instance, when Nick loses his car, he's forced to start riding a child's bicycle—at least it's not a Segway). A joke involving another of Nick's neighbors (a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Stephen Root, Office Space) is arguably the funniest single moment in the film, but it illustrates one of Everything Must Go's ideas (that Nick's problems are exposed for all the world to see, while others manage to keep their embarrassing issues behind closed doors) in a manner which seems just a bit too silly in contrast to the rest of the movie. Additionally, the guitar-driven underscore sometimes seems a shade too sparkly and warm for what we're seeing on-screen.
It's nice to come across a film like this every now and then: a quiet, well-acted piece that gives its characters time to breathe and steadily achieves its modest goals. It does a fine job of translating Carver's writing to the big screen and offers Will Ferrell's best work in a few years. Recommended.
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