Putting a comedy actor in a dramatic role is not a new idea, and it should come as no surprise by now when it works. Of course these actors are good at drama. Comedy is hard. The real risk comes in how seriously these comedy actors wish to be taken. The best of the dramas starring comedians come across as movies they really cared about and wanted to be involved in. The worst (I'm looking at you, Robin Williams!) come across as desperate bids to be taken seriously. Thankfully, Everything Must Go is in the former category.
Everything Must Go is a film directed by Dan Rush, based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Carver's minimalist stories are perhaps best known by film lovers for providing the raw material for Robert Altman's classic ensemble epic, Short Cuts. Everything Must Go stars Will Ferrell as Nick Halsey, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon, loses his job, and comes home to find his wife has changed the key to his house and thrown all of his belongings onto the front lawn. His AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Pena) is a cop , who is able to pull some strings and give him six days to clear his lawn, by registering it as a yard sale. Over the days, he finds companionship in a lonely kid whose mom is busy as a hospice worker, and a pregnant woman who has just moved in across the way, and begins the steps to putting his life back together by completely letting go of his old life.
It's fun to watch Nick let go. He starts off unwilling to sell any of his belongings, not even a half-used bottle of mouthwash, but as the movie progresses and he has one small revelation about himself after another, his yard sale gains momentum. One of my favorite comedy stars, Will Ferrell brings a lot of control to his performance. His character is a funny guy, but he's not Will Ferrell funny. There are laughs, but they come naturally, and often at his expense.
Though Carver's stories were short and sparse, there is a recognizable element of his work found in Everything Must Go. We as viewers get to eavesdrop on Nick and his neighbors in some of their most private moments, in an almost voyeuristic way. Also, there's a scene when Nick reaches a low point, and contacts a girl he barely remembers, who wrote a nice message in his high school yearbook. Played compassionately by Laura Dern, she recognizes Nick's desperation and helps him remember why she wrote what she wrote. That scene itself could have almost been a Carver story.
I really liked Everything Must Go. It had a positive, almost Buddhist message without being preachy. It really dragged its protagonist through the mud, took him all the way to rock bottom, but also gave him a clean break. I related to it personally in some small sense. I'm not a drunk or anything, but I do have a TON of stuff, and I do have a real hard time getting rid of it. I've had to let go of some fairly dear possessions the last couple of times I moved, including many childhood toys, and my MAD magazine collection. It's not easy to do, but it does feel quite liberating once the deed is done. Everything Must Go made me remember that feeling and think maybe it would be good for me to lose some more of my junk.