We always mean to use the things we accumulate as we move through life. But often our well-intentioned purchases pile up along with the years, easily ignored and forgotten, stowed unobtrusively in a corner collecting dust. It wouldnt' be so easy if those possessions were suddenly swept out of their hiding places, though; that unused elliptical machine would suddenly be front and center, a sore-thumb reminder of your failure to keep that promise to get in shape five years ago.
That's the sight that greets Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) when he returns to his suburban Phoenix home, having fallen off the wagon and been fired unceremoniously from his job. His wife has effectively fired him from their marriage, as well: She's changed the locks, frozen their bank account and tossed every one of his possessions out on their front lawn. He reacts by doing exactly what he'd planned to do had he been able to get into the house — he sits down in his recliner and morosely drinks his way through a case of beer.
The Raymond Carver short story ("Why Don't You Dance?") on which writer-director Dan Rush based Everything Must Go runs a brisk but evocative 6 1/2 pages. To film it as written would probably yield an impressionistic short film of about as many minutes; the story is the barest sketch of a man cleaning house on his life after the implied loss of his wife, passing the possessions and the memories of that union on to a young couple who are blind to his backstory as the reader. Rush takes one simple concept from that text — a sad alcoholic with his furniture on the lawn — and fills in the blanks.
Too many of them, as it turns out. He creates a community of other sad characters to draw Nick out and inspire him to get himself together: a lonely young boy (Christopher Jordan Wallace) whom Nick hires to help sell his things; a lonely old high-school acquaintance (Laura Dern) to whom he reaches out in an attempt to find comfort; a pregnant woman (Rebecca Hall) who's just moved in across the street, and who's grown lonely setting up a new house for her absent husband.
That concern with the isolations of modern life comes directly from Carver. But it's Rush who makes these characters push one another toward healing, and that feels forced. There are moments of poignancy, but mostly the film feels inert and unremarkable, an off-the-shelf indie-spiration fable that employs a manipulatively cruel twist to move the story away from its inherent darkness and toward an uplifting climactic montage.
Hall and Ferrell, who both give performances that hint at years of repressed emotional pain, seem more willing to commit to that darkness than their director. Ferrell subverts everything one expects from him as a performer, retreating into a sad-eyed resignation even more withdrawn than his other notable dramatic performance, in 2006's Stranger than Fiction. He forgoes the sad-clown routine we often expect from comedic actors in this kind of film, in favor of straight sadness and desperation.
Rush does feel compelled to give him a few stray punch lines, but the actor delivers them with an understated reluctance, as if even the suggestion of humor might derail Nick's journey to the rockiest of bottoms. If Rush had been able to send him there without dangling such a visible lifeline to redemption, the stakes of the film might have felt as high as they needed to.