On paper, Everything Must Go has everything going for it: one of the biggest comedy stars in the world stretching a dramatic muscle that keeps getting stronger; it's an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story; it has a strong supporting cast, including Rebecca Hall and the recently white-hot Michael Peña, and it comes from a young director of TV commercials making his feature debut.
So why does it seem so listless? Will Ferrell, whose performance in Stranger Than Fiction revealed an actor with surprising depth, plays Nick Halsey, a bona fide alcoholic who woke up next to a coworker on a business trip one morning and found himself besieged by trouble. The film comes in shortly thereafter. Halsey has fallen off the wagon (again), is promptly fired from his well-paying job, loses his company car and finds that his wife has not only left him, but left all of his belongings strewn angrily on the front lawn at their house. For good measure, she had the locks changed.
Rock bottom is one thing, but having to collect the pieces of your life in clear view of your neighbors is beyond embarrassing. The cops are promptly called on Halsey, but he's lucky enough to have a sponsor on the force: Detective Frank Garcia (Peña), who tells him that if he calls his situation a yard sale, he can stay out there for five days.
That's when he meets Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a portly kid whose mom leaves him to ride his bike around the block all day while she works as a nurse for an elderly lady. Kenny circles Halsey's lawn like a fly at a garbage dump, but Halsey learns that he's not interested in his stuff so much as he's interested in Halsey's situation.
Halsey hires Kenny as a yard-sale consultant of sorts and teaches him a few business basics. The kid's a whiz, it turns out, and pretty soon Kenny's diligence allows Halsey some breathing room to wrap his head around the steaming pile that used to be his life. He meets Samantha (Hall), his new, pregnant neighbor, who inspires and depresses him in equal order. She's interesting and pretty, but her husband, who hasn't yet made the move, reminds him of himself and he can only see her headed for a dead end.
I adored these characters, thanks in part to Director Dan Rush's deliberately labored pacing. He gives them room to find themselves within the story, and Ferrell and Wallace in particular develop chemistry before our eyes. Wallace, the son of the late Notorious B.I.G., has pools of sadness behind his eyes much like his father's, and his presence is somehow fresh and familiar at once. Similarly, Ferrell is an actor the audience can luxuriate in; he's so unpredictable. Because we've seen his behavioral extremes and his willingness to sustain absurdism at any cost, we're comfortable with his stillness.
I'm not so sure, however, that the film is as comfortable with it. Everything Must Go hits a sizable lull in its second act where it seems Rush, in writing the script, has run out of situations for Halsey to encounter on that lawn. He's explored the neighbors' private lives and gone through his money and beer, and there are days left before the climactic yard sale, leaving the film adrift, almost dead in the water.
Thankfully, it does the heavy lifting required to get back on its feet and headed toward a resolution for Halsey. But there's something about those setting and rising suns on that front lawn that makes the film feel longer than it is and more bloated than it had to be. Still, if you're going to be stuck on a desert island - or deserted suburban home, in this case - you could do worse than being there with Will Ferrell.
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