This review was originally published at Spout on May 13, 2011. It is being reposted for the film's home video release.
Whenever Will Ferrell turns to drama, he is very literally at the service of a writer. Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda" has him functioning only as part of a story told over dinner. In "Stranger Than Fiction" he's the protagonist in an author's new novel. Both of those films even share an interest in whether the characters are elements of a comedy or tragedy. Then there's "Winter's Passing," which hardly relates to the layered conceit of the others but still casts the actor as a guy working for a famous reclusive novelist. Now Ferrell stars in "Everything Must Go," a film that isn't so much a film as an overt and overlong metaphor, and he's simply the pawn of this stretched out literary device. It might as well feature someone portraying Raymond Carver, whose short story "Why Don't You Dance?" is the basis for Dan Rush's directorial debut, and have him speak directly to the audience to set up the plot.
Sure, any fiction film (and many non-fiction) can be described as a mere construct of written material, populated by characters that serve the narrative and/or ideas construed. But even without a Charlie Kaufman type (one of his lesser wannabes, that is), explicitly pulling the strings for all to see, "Everything Must Go" still feels totally boxed into two specific bits of wordplay. One consists of Ferrell's alcoholic sad-sack character, Nick, literally having his problems laid out in the open, on his front lawn exposed to the world (whereas everyone else gets to keep theirs hidden behind walls, only occasionally transparent through windows). The other is Nick's therapeutic need to unload all his junk/problems -- in the form of a yard sale -- to lighten his load moving forward. Really the two metaphors are part of the same larger frame. And other small meanings can be (and have been) found in specific items within the bigger picture.
I guess it's fitting for the film's ideas to be so obvious, as if they are sitting out on Rush's own lawn. The metaphor is strong, but not so much that the story itself can't be enjoyed. I may not be able to picture Nick or the other characters existing outside the frame of the plot, but what they do inside that box is nice, even if every action is a bit on the nose. Maybe some of the dialogue is too pointed, like when Nick calls out a new friend (the totally lovable Rebecca Hall) for being just as messed up and miserable, only trying to conceal it inside. Rush clearly belongs to the breed of screenwriter who likes apparent screenwriting as opposed to realism. I'm kind of surprised the characters' names aren't more literal and/or punny, like "Rock Bottoms" or "Nick Nedersoberup." The credits could have just referred to roles as "young boy who helps show him the way" and "perfect neighbors with secret kinkiness that proves everyone has hidden aberrations."
Writerly screenwriting is good for movies that don't need to make much sense. At the beginning of "Everything Must Go," Nick loses his job and he arrives home to find his wife gone, his stuff on the lawn and all the locks to the house changed. Then his company car is taken away and even his bank accounts are frozen so that he can't get money out. None of this is too implausible yet it is questionable what Nick's wife expects him to do in a situation with no options at all. But I love that the film kicks off like some kind of conspiracy theory movie (the conspiracy being marriage, I guess), where all identity is removed immediately to set up an extreme case of desperation, so the very arranged narrative can go only upward. Scripts like this also have a clearer way of calling out social issues, even if here it's just hypocrisies revealed through thinly veiled parallels -- look for more than one instance of people taking advantage of innocents. It may not be the most clever or unpredictable effort, but it's familiar in a comfortable and admirable way from a structural perspective.
"Everything Must Go" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: "Stranger Than Fiction"; "Broken Flowers" (without the subtlety); "Bad Santa" (without the bite)