Fired from his sales job after falling off the wagon and allegedly sleeping with a colleague, Nick Porter (Ferrell) returns home to find his wife gone, the locks changed, and all his belongings in the front yard. With everything on the line – or, more accurately, on the lawn – where does Nick go from here?
“There was more to it, and she was trying to get it all talked out,” runs the penultimate line of Raymond Carver’s four-page short story “Why Don’t You Dance.” First time writer-director Dan Rush evidently felt there was, indeed, more to it, taking the Short Cuts author’s story fragment as the jumping-off point for a very timely tale of a man coming to terms with his own fuckups, and deciding what – if anything – to do about it. It’s the ‘if anything’ part that makes Everything Must Go intriguing and frustrating in equal measure.
In expanding the Rizla-thin story, Rush adds three new characters: a local kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace, Notorious B.I.G.’s son) seemingly modelled on Bad Santa’s Brett Kelly, a pregnant neighbour (Hall, insightful as ever), and a concerned cop buddy (an atypically uncertain turn from Peña), unsure whether to assist Nick or arrest him. One could also argue that he introduces a fourth: Nick himself (Ferrell), whose barely-there presence in the source story becomes a fully-rounded, flesh and blood character with all too many demonstrable human frailties.
Comedians often make good straight actors: they can memorise lines, are familiar with creating characters, and have excellent timing – all prerequisites for the business of portraying another person on film. Some, like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, have a tendency to be ingratiating; Ferrell doesn’t bother – in that respect, he’s more like Ben Stiller in Greenberg. But where Greenberg wasn’t self-aware enough to know how much of a prick he was, Nick is only too cognisant of his own failings and fallibilities, copping to the regrettable, avoidable turn his life has taken. Faced with a frighteningly uncertain future, Nick can barely muster the necessary energy, much less enthusiasm, to use the crisis as an opportunity to turn his life around. Here, perhaps, is the film’s key weakness: Nick’s spirit is so damaged, teetering on the brink of self-pity, you may start begging for someone to slap him awake – or worse, slap you awake.
Ferrell plays it straighter than he did in Stranger than Fiction, and harder to like, but he’s an engaging, if frustrating presence in Rush’s solid but slight debut, greatly expanded from a story barely longer than this review. ★★★