As one of the few people I know who will forever admire Will Ferrell’s dramatic work in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, I was very pleased to hear that the actor, comedian, and recent recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, would be returning to some dramatic work in the indie dramedy Everything Must Go. If you are one of the scattered admirers of what wonderful Fiction Ferrell brought to the screen previously, his performance in Everything Must Go is just as good, if not better. Granted, this film is far sadder and generally more depressing, but no less powerful.
Based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, Everything Must Go is about a man whose life manages to spiral completely downwards in a period of about two days. On the first day, Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is fired from his job, at which he has worked for sixteen years. Apparently, his alcoholism got in the way of things from time to time. Upon returning home, freshly let go, he find all of his belongings on his front lawn, with the locks changed, no access to the house, and a note from his wife, notifying that she is leaving him and wants him out of her life. Essentially, every piece of life that Nick wants or could care about is strewn on his front lawn, and he does what any person in that situation would do: he gives up completely.
Lounging in his chair, he befriends a young boy named Kenny, played by Christopher CJ Wallace (aka The Notorious BIG’s son), and befriends his pretty neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and with them, he goes on a path of redemption! No, not really. Amongst the several things this film does correctly, everything Must Go first and foremost avoids cliché. With such a sad sack protagonist and a depressing, worthy of redemption storyline, it could have easily fallen prey to being your usual sappy drama. While it isn’t as cynical or dark as Young Adult, it does treat its protagonist in a similar way by not letting its protagonist escape from their flaws and mistakes, and instead uses them as an opportunity to see the character develop in their bizarrely stunted ways. Nor does the film allow to overdevelop and thus give way to extreme sappiness and cliché.
The performance that Will Ferrell gives in the film is of utter nuance. The character of Nick is not one of your typical slackers, usually played for comedy, but instead a legitimate depressive alcoholic, someone whom you would initially want to have sympathy for, but any sense of that is driven away by the character’s cynicism. Though, this is not completely true. Ferrell’s nature charm on the screen, almost in a Tom Hanks way, where you know that he must be a nice guy despite that these bad things are happening to a relatively good person, lets the audience have a certain amount of sympathy for him without making the audience regret having that sympathy for a generally unlikable character. Is it because the audience feels a connection with someone who is going through a midlife crisis? Or rather, a person whose midlife crisis has simply crashed down on that person? Why does this character inspire so much emotional response from the audience? What makes the portrayal so tender, so beautiful at times, and so worthy of a watch and, even at times, a tear? It is all thanks to Ferrell, who hones his dramatic skills not only as an actor, but as a performer. One never gets the sense that Ferrell is not taking his role seriously. Rather than a well-known comedian playing a sad sack, Ferrell, who has played the same kind of character for laughs before, inhabits that character and becomes him. That is, essentially, the best an actor can do. That is what acting should be. There is no discernible façade between Will Ferrell the comedian and Nick Halsey the man who is sleeping on his lawn.
It is lucky that one gets such a superb performance from Ferrell, as the story, while just as depressing as listening to Nick’s life story on audiotape, could have presented itself as something rife with genre tropes. There seems to be something around every corner that could have jumped out and made the film a “recovery movie” or a “redemption movie”, usually the province of cable TV. The film’s unsympathetic, un-cynical, and un-cliché look at Nick’s world affords itself a strange realism. If anything, the film presents very human characters whose responses are often irrational, unjustified, but still worthy of our attention.
The supporting cast is excellent, with Christopher CJ Wallace as the kid neighbor who indirectly inspires Nick to get off his ass. Yes, Kenny’s mother works, and yes, we kind of feel bad for him, but, again, the audience is not guilted into any of these emotions or responses; they just seem to happen naturally. The same can be said of Rebecca Hall’s “new in town, married woman next door”. Her husband works and she is there alone while pregnant, but there is enough distance for the audience to relate on their own without being forced to. It is this naturalism that writer and director Dan Rush imbues the story with, devoid of overt pessimism or optimism.
While most of the film is dramatic, and fairly depressing, there are light strokes of comedy brushed in that are definitely amusing. The style and sense of humor is not dark or black, per se, but balances the film out so that the drama and comedy juxtapose one another in terms of the tone in the film. Nor does it feel out of the blue or random in anyway. I guess the key word one could use to describe how good this film is is “natural”. Everything about it just comes together in a neat package, with the right rhythm and cadence.
Dan Rush’s dramedy is placidly paced and naturalistic in every way, from its story to its characters. Although it sometimes teeters on the edge of making the audience want to weep for a thousand years with a pint of ice cream at their side, it balances the sad story with mildly uplifting scenarios and amusing moments of humor. However, it is Will Ferrell’s excellent, almost perfect performance that makes the film worth seeing. Much like Ferrell’s previous venture into dramatic work in, this film that sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction. Also, more depressing.