A bit too precious to truly resonate yet possessing a sense of unguarded honesty that's difficult to deny, writer/director Dan Rush's adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance?" does benefit from a particularly strong dramatic performance by Will Ferrell -- dutifully walking the well-worn path of comic actors who strive to be taken seriously -- though its low-key, oppressively somber tone belies its somewhat quirky premise.
Suddenly fired from his sales job after years of service, aging alcoholic Nick Halsey (Ferrell) returns home to find that his wife has changed the locks on their posh suburban home, and moved all of his possessions onto the front lawn. Later, after Nick welcomes his new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall) to the block and strikes up a friendly conversation with young Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), whose mother works down the street, Nick's car is repossessed and his credit cards are canceled. Drunk and depressed on his own front lawn, Nick narrowly avoids getting arrested before being informed by his pal Detective Frank Garcia (Michael Peña) that city residents are permitted to hold yard sales for no more than five consecutive days. With that, Nick puts up a yard sale sign, hires Kenny as his main salesman, and does his best to appear as if everything is business as usual. Despite appearances, however, Nick's life is still falling apart. Only by letting go of the possessions that keep him bound to his troubled past will Nick finally find the courage to trust the new people in his life and find true happiness on his own terms.
Back in 2004 -- the same year his breakout hit, Anchorman, hit theaters -- Ferrell showed moviegoers that he was much more ambitious than many might have suspected with an appearance in the Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda. Two years later, Ferrell's Golden Globe-nominated performance in Marc Forester's meta-comedy drama Stranger Than Fiction proved to audiences that the loud-mouthed funnyman was also capable of a convincing range of emotions. There aren't many laughs in Everything Must Go, but when they do come, they seem specially tailored to Ferrell's unique brand of physical humor -- a touch of reckless impulse driven by brain-damaged bravado. Perhaps, given Ferrell's iconic status, it was smart of Rush to front-load Everything Must Go with some of the film's most effective comedic moments; by showing Ferrell in a somewhat comic light before the heavy drama kicks in, the more serious elements of the plot carry greater dramatic weight, and the complexity of the character comes through a bit more vividly.
Nonetheless, it takes more than a strong lead performance for a film like Everything Must Go to really hit the mark, and while as a director Rush seems to have a natural affinity for working with actors, as a screenwriter he's still got some developing to do. The lead performances in Everything Must Go each contain enough unique subtleties to prove that Rush certainly has a gift for getting his actors to hit the right emotional notes; however, the further the story develops, the more Rush the screenwriter starts to overplay his hand. Not so much that it draws us out of the film, but just enough to blunt the emotional impact of Nick's sincere struggle with alcoholism.
Even then, Rush does accomplish some pretty impressive feats with his screenplay: not only does he manage to create a fairly rounded character (Halsey's wife) without ever even showing her face, but a brief scene between Ferrell and Laura Dern highlights those pivotal yet fleeting moments from youth that define our true character to others, even when we bear no trace of the memory. These scenes hint that as a writer Rush has more to say about the human condition than he addresses in Everything Must Go, and though he hasn't mastered the fine art of storytelling just yet, it will be interesting to see how this skill develops as his career progresses.