Somebody once said to expect the unexpected; I think it was Batman. And if anything could make me hate Batman, it’s that statement. Ignore the fact that it’s one of those paradoxes that would make 1970’s supercomputers self-destruct. Instead, just focus on how boring life would be without any surprises. Everything Must Go is one of those surprises. I’ve had better surprises (low fat mayonnaise isn’t bad, believe it or not), but to go into a Will Ferrell movie about a guy who sells all of his possessions in a yard sale and discover not a kooky family-friendly comedy but instead a maudlin, darkly comic tale of self-obliteration is a rare treat. I mostly liked Everything Must Go, and I recommend seeing it.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a recovering alcoholic ad man who – over the course of a single afternoon – loses his job, his wife, his car, access to his house, access to his bank account and, understandably, his sobriety. To top things off his wife threw literally everything he owns on the front lawn. Completely defeated, he just hunkers down on his lounge chair and sits there until the cops tell him he has to move. It doesn’t seem entirely fair – after all, he’s on his own property – so his sponsor (Crash’s Michael Pena), a homicide detective, gets him a three-day yard sale permit. The now is that he actually has to have that yard sale.
Believe or not (I recommend believing it, however, because it’s the truth), the yard sale is a very small part of Everything Must Go, which is mostly a stark portrayal of malaise and regret. With nothing but the objects he’s cultivated to look at, it becomes clear that Nick’s life – and by extension our own – are full of unnecessary distractions. That doesn’t seem to be the point of first time feature filmmaker Dan Rush’s film, but it’s food for thought. It’s ironic that the only solution to Nick’s problems – having so very much taken away from him – is to take away even more. The end of the film threatens to leave him with nothing, but Everything Must Go isn’t even confident that that’s a good or bad thing. What does he have to show for his life? A few acquaintances who don’t think poorly of him, and many who do.
Rebecca Hall and Christopher Jordan Wallace fill out the main cast and contribute realistic, lovable performances, but Everything Must Go is Will Ferrell’s movie, and like fellow Saturday Night Live alum Adam Sandler his best work may be in the film that touches upon his comedic persona and finds genuine tragedy therein. Rush’s film is no Punch Drunk Love, still one of the best American films of the young century, but Ferrell’s dramatic performance is as exceptional as any of his comedic roles to date. He’s Frank the Tank from Old School, if the tragedy of alcoholism were treated with fairness and humility. That doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, and it’s not, but Everything Must Go is a comedy nonetheless, filled with genuine chuckles at dignity’s expense.
And yet I remain unconvinced of Everything Must Go’s significance. It seems hesitant to make a firm statement about any of its themes, although perhaps that’s the point: that life is just complicated and stupid. At its most heroic Rush’s film celebrates individuals who respond to life’s tribulations with a modicum of grace, and who overcome their humdrum daily existence without fear. But the melancholic ending leaves one wondering if Nick Halsey has actually learned this lesson or simply been defeated, having tangled with an infinitely more powerful opponent in the form of circumstance. His problems are his own, but the form they take and the metaphoric traffic jam they generate are just stupid luck. Rush clearly wants us to draw our own conclusions, but you may be too worn down to want to do all that work. It might be easier to hunker down on our own front lawn, or amongst our own pile of things, and try to enlighten ourselves with ‘proper’ message movies, which spit out platitudes that are as easy to collect as they are to ignore. Everything Must Go may be a funny, challenging movie… but it’s so damned challenging that, like Nick Halsey, giving up almost seems like the most viable option.
Crave Online Rating: 7/10