When Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) comes home and finds all of his stuff on the lawn and the locks to his house changed, he buzzes the intercom and pleads, "Are you in there? If you are, can this happen another day?" It's not an unreasonable request; he's home from work early because he's been fired from his cushy executive job. It's because of his drinking problem (and a sexual harassment complaint stemming from it). She's not inside, though; she's left him, for good this time. He surveys the accumulation of items spread across the lawn, and decides to have a seat and finish his beer.
There's a lovely sense of melancholy in these, the opening scenes of Everything Must Go, writer/director Dan Rush's adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story "Why Don't You Dance." As Nick, partially due to circumstance and partially due to stubbornness, is unable to remove his collection of crap from the front yard (he keeps rearranging the items, though, the landlocked equivalent to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic), those of us in the audience who have seen an independent film or two are immediately on high alert for excessive whimsy. But Rush doesn't fall into that trap, in spite of the presence of a lovely and potentially tragic pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall) and a wise-for-his-years kid from up the block (Christopher Jordan Wallace).
The key to his success, for my money, is in his insistence on looking this fundamentally silly situation dead in the eye, and playing it without the cloying preciousness that we might expect. Its aims are modest--it's a small film, in scope and ambition, but unexpectedly rich. Ferrell's doing a variation on the unassuming work he did so well in Stranger than Fiction a few years back; there's a delicacy to his performance, a grace that prohibits him from reaching for effect. His character spends much of the film intoxicated, but he doesn't play it "drunk", comically or tragically. He doesn't even play it with much of a buzz. Nick Halsey is a functioning alcoholic, and has been for several years; Ferrell knows that the secret to playing a real alcoholic is to realize that they're always trying to look sober.
He's playing a disconsolate character, but it's not a depressing performance--his desperation is both real (you can hear the weight of the world in that heavy sigh he lets loose in the opening sequence) and funny. The script--and Ferrell's playing of it--are savviest in putting across the subtle turn of the character and how he feels about his situation, which goes from a necessity (he can't move all that stuff--his car has been repossessed and his bank accounts are shut off) to an act of defiance. "I'm not leaving my stuff," he insists, if for no other reason than that it feels like the last element of his life he actually has some modicum of control over.
Ferrell and Hall have a nice, easy chemistry that doesn't go where you're conditioned to assume it's going (and thank goodness for that); there are complicated things happening for both of them, which Nick picks up on and, in a moment of anger, jabs her with: "You should put up some curtains... so you don't have to stare at your future." Structure dictates that they have a fight in the third act, but it actually feels organic in a way that those scenes seldom do; the argument grows out of an offhand remark, as those things always do, and blows up from there.
Wallace is an unaffected young actor, and his arc (and relationship with Ferrell) has a charmingly casual authenticity. Laura Dern only has one scene, but it's a beauty; she plays between the lines with real skill. Watch the way she takes him in when he shows up unannounced at her door, smiles a little, and quickly decides exactly how to handle the situation. This is an actor. Some elements of the ending might come a bit too easily, and Michael Pena's work is a little thin, but that's about the worst you can say about this one.
This very eve I received an angry email from the producer of an independent film that I recently panned for its dull, witless dialogue and excruciatingly slow pace; I was told that I couldn't comprehend the film's "simplicity." I didn't respond to the producer; I'd merely encourage him to see Everything Must Go, which is like a direct response--it is a simple film, but doesn't sacrifice style for the sake of that elusive, precious simplicity. It's a quiet little charmer, and it sticks with you.