It’s a funny thing about funny men...at some point they decide that being funny isn’t enough.
Maybe it’s because we tend to undervalue laughter while bestowing all the awards on serious drama; whatever the reason, most comedy movie stars feel compelled to prove they can do more than elicit guffaws. They’ve got to show us they can act.
In this regard, Everything Must Go is a worthy successor to Stranger than Fiction (2006), in which he played a lovestruck IRS auditor. Both films are mildly comedic but take Ferrell’s characters more or less seriously. There’s no anarchy for anarchy’s sake...instead a more demanding agenda is in play.
Dan Rush’s film (it’s based on a short story by Raymond Carver, whose tales Robert Altman fashioned into Short Cuts) begins with salesman Nick Halsey (Ferrell) having a bummer of a day. He’s managed to drink himself out of a job, and upon returning home discovers his wife has left after hauling all of Nick’s possessions onto the front lawn and putting in new locks.
The angry, defiant Nick decides that for the time being he’ll live right there in the yard. He’s got a cooler of beer, a reclining chair and his record collection...with the addition of a power cord run from a neighbor’s house he’s good to go.
Or so he thinks.
The ways in which we manage to mess up our lives — and the necessity of having friends and loved ones to help us back off the ledge — is the major theme here.
Over the course of a week Nick meets and begins to mentor a tweener (the excellent Christopher Jordan Wallace). The idea is to hold a huge yard sale of Nick’s stuff, with the veteran salesman showing the youngster how to haggle over a price.
Of course it’s not that easy. In Nick’s reluctance to part with his possessions another theme emerges: the cleansing power of jettisoning old baggage and starting over with a clean slate. Thus the title.
Sadness and humor coexist effortlessly here, thanks largely to Ferrell’s skill at finding moments of amusing release while maintaining a surprisingly high level of pathos.
The idea of new possibilities is represented not only by Nick’s young apprentice but by a new neighbor, a pregnant woman (Rebecca Hall) whose husband is supposed to join her later but might never show up.
And in the film’s single best scene, Nick appears unannounced at the house of a woman he used to admire in high school (Laura Dern) and spends a couple of hours on her porch, talking and watching her kids play. Check out Dern’s performance — it’s quite lovely how she moves from mild alarm (who is this guy, showing up after 30 years?) to compassion for a peer so clearly going through hard times.
Everything Must Go did only modest business — apparently ticketbuyers prefer Ferrell in inflated pig bladder mode — but here's hoping that every few years he tackles a semi-serious role. I hope it's good for him. I know it's good for us.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.