Friday, May 13, 2011

Everything Must Go: Intriguing, but flawed

Everything Must Go (2010) • View trailer for Everything Must Go
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for occasional profanity and mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang

One must be wary of screen comics who decide they need to be Meaningful.

The results can be grim.
When Nick (Will Ferrell, left) decides to make a food and beer run, he enlists
the curious Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to watch all his possessions.
Kenny agrees, mostly because the fascinated teen wants to be on hand, to
witness whatever is going to happen next to this obviously daft adult.

Actually, the results are usually insufferably maudlin. Robin Williams went through a string of increasingly saintly roles — Jack, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, What Dreams May Come — while seeking an alternative to his wild ’n’ crazy persona. He finally achieved the desired voice by concentrating on offbeat or unsettling characters (Insomnia, One Hour Photo) and was rewarded with an Academy Award for his genuinely warm supporting turn in Good Will Hunting.

Jim Carrey hasn’t been that lucky. He just about destroyed his career with the overly sentimental The Majestic, and more recent efforts such as The Number 23 haven’t helped matters. Quite wisely, he seems to have retreated to what he does best, with Yes Man and this summer’s upcoming Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Adam Sandler took an intriguing detour with Punch Drunk Love, and he also delivered credible performances in Reign Over Me and the under-appreciated Spanglish; unfortunately, nobody cared enough to purchase tickets. More recently, his efforts to tug heartstrings in the gawdawful Funny People were a complete bust.

The common theme: They all try too hard. Rather than transition gently from slapstick to, say, light romantic comedy, these guys race all the way to pathos, as if determined to demonstrate an acting range they clearly don’t possess. To repeat one of Clint Eastwood’s catch-phrases from back in the day, A man’s got to know his limitations.

All of which brings us to Will Ferrell.

I was genuinely impressed with his work in Stranger than Fiction, perhaps because he had the good sense to take a supporting role in that quirky fantasy. It wasn’t really a “Will Ferrell movie,” and he didn’t try to turn it into one; his well-modulated performance therefore suggested a genuine capacity for playing outside his usual range.

Alas, with Everything Must Go, Ferrell has made the same mistake as his comedy brethren, and leaped into a pool of treacle. Thus, in this new film, his Nick is an alcoholic who, having gone off the wagon, torpedoes his high-profile corporate career and — on the same day he loses his job — returns home to discover that his wife has dumped all his possessions onto their front lawn, and locked him out of the house.

And disappeared.

Director Dan Rush’s quietly melancholy little drama, which he loosely (very loosely) based on the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance,” probably works best as a parable. Trouble is, the film clearly exists in our real world, which causes occasional problems.

The set-up, for openers. In order for his story to progress, Rush must get Nick onto his front lawn, and keep him there ... for several days. Thus, Nick’s wife — a frequently referenced but unseen presence throughout (as also is the case in Carver’s story) — takes this drastic step, lent additional weight when she changes all the door locks. She also freezes their joint back account, terminates their cell phone service and credit cards, and leaves her husband only with whatever cash he has in his pocket.

Well ... no. We’re told that Nick bought the house in which they live; a man’s entitled to enter his own home, even if forced to shatter a window to do so. Nick’s AA sponsor, who happens to be a local cop — Michael Peña, as Frank Garcia — warns that he’ll arrest Nick if he does attempt to break in. Not in this reality, folks; that’s just stupid.

Additionally, the notion of one party “freezing” a joint bank account is equally silly, particularly when a much more reasonable alternative exists; Nick’s wife simply could have drained the funds.

On his way out of the office, on this worst day of his life, Nick’s smarmy punk of a boss tells him — we hear this! — that he can keep the company car for “the rest of the month.” Yet the vehicle is repossessed (a company car?) the very next day, when it still contains many of Nick’s possessions. Yes, that’s probably an act of spite by said boss, in response to Nick’s childish stunt on his way out of the office, but still: The contrivances become irritating.

I get it: For the purposes of the story Rush wishes to tell, Nick must be stripped of everything — most particularly his dignity — while being stuck on his front lawn for several days. And, yes, the story told while Nick attempts to navigate his newly restricted universe is thoughtful, touching and even empowering, particularly with respect to the relationships he strikes up with two neighbors.

Call me stubborn, though, because I couldn’t get past the fact that Nick could have waltzed into his house for a real shower, and real food, and easily obtained electricity, any time he wanted to.

OK, enough about that.

Nick’s adventures on his lawn definitely hold our attention. At first just stubborn, pounding tall beers while building a makeshift “living room” of table, bureau and his favorite chair, Nick’s petulant defiance gradually morphs into an act of desperation. His lawn-scattered possessions come to represent what’s left of his identity, and his efforts to cling to this become increasingly frantic.

Our response to Nick’s behavior, as the next few days pass, is shaped by his interactions with two strangers. First up to bat is Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), an outcast teenager with his own troubles: He’s overweight enough to be self-conscious, and unwilling to embrace his fondness for baseball by joining a school team, because it would involve getting undressed in a public locker room, where the kids are cruel.

Kenny is another in a recent line of the unexpectedly wise — if credibly flawed — teens and children popping up in quirky indie dramas. As with Alex Shaffer’s young wrestler in Win Win, Wallace’s excellent performance here is unassuming, naturalistic and totally void of flash or “acting” mannerisms. In short, Kenny’s a cool kid whom we can’t help liking, particularly since he has the sensitivity to handle Nick with an unjudgmental willingness to just, well, be available.

Assuming Nick will pass along some baseball tips, of course. That’s the bargain.

As Kenny helps Nick go through the charade of hosting a yard sale — the legal loophole offered by Frank, which allows Nick to essentially live on his lawn for five days — their activities are observed by Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant young wife who has just moved into the house across the street. Nick’s good-hearted instincts come into play with Samantha, although their encounters feel mildly flirtatious; as with Kenny, she neither judges nor asks. (Perhaps not too likely, that, but by now we’re willing to roll with such details.)

As is the case with Kenny, Samantha also is flawed; her repeated, cheerful insistence that she’s readying the house for the husband who’ll soon join her, has an oddly false note. Hall nails this duality; as with Kenny, Samantha clearly is worth our emotional investment.

The same is true of Laura Dern, who pops up briefly as Delilah, a sidebar character in this morality play: a former school chum Nick spontaneously seeks out, after seeing her photo — and kind message — in a pile of yearbooks scattered on the lawn.

The important issue is whether Ferrell’s Nick similarly holds our attention, and wins our admiration. Answer: absolutely. As he demonstrated in Stranger than Fiction, Ferrell is quite skilled at bewildered misery, and he doesn’t abuse our trust. Rush doesn’t either, at this delicate stage of his narrative; there is no quick fix, no eye-rolling onset of instant sobriety. If Nick is to achieve his moment of cathartic epiphany, salvation will arrive in small doses. Perhaps only one tiny triumph.

Unfortunately, Rush constantly undermines his own efforts. The various character dynamics here are interesting, even captivating; the ongoing plot hiccups, on the other hand, become quite irritating. The true nature of Frank’s place in these events, when revealed, is one absurdly melodramatic hitch too many: worth little more than a snort of disgust.

In the final analysis, Ferrell deserves credit for a game effort; he makes Nick a credible human being who earns and retains our sympathy, if perhaps not our full respect. Rush, though, hasn’t quite figured out narrative balance or the “rules” inherent in successful storytelling. For that reason, then, Everything Must Go remains a misfire ... albeit one that’s still worth your time and attention.

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