The following is a reprint of the review that ran at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival
Will Ferrell once again tries his hand at drama, trading in broad laughs for a low-key turn in the surprisingly tender and winning “Everything Must Go.” Written and directed by Dan Rush, the film may be Ferrell making his most convincing case yet that his well of talent runs far deeper than his more well known (and yes, hilarious) work.
Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is not having a good day. Even though he’s one of the top salesman and a regional vice president at an office supply company, his numerous sick days and an escalating number of incidents due to his alcoholism have gotten him fired. When he gets home things go from bad to worse. He discovers his wife Catherine has left him, changed all the locks and put his belongings on the front lawn. His credit cards are canceled, his cell phone service cut and he loses use of the company car. Unsure of what to do next and how to win his wife back, Nick settles on his front lawn, arranging his belongings into a makeshift home of sorts, much to the chagrin of his neighbors and in violation of the law.
Helping him stay clear of jail is his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (Michael Pena), a local homicide detective. He tells Nick that legally, he can hold a yard sale for five consecutive days before he will have to either leave or be arrested. Nick doesn’t want to sell his stuff, but reluctantly begins to let things go with a neighborhood kid, Kenny (Christopher Wallace, and yes, the son of Biggie Smalls) helping him out. Also keeping an eye on him is the new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and over the next few days, Nick will both literally and figuratively get rid of his baggage.
Based on the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver, the film hits the familiar notes of this kind of redemption tale in unexpected ways, its greatest strength being that it never overplays its hand. With a little kid befriending the alcoholic protagonist, the story could very easily have gone in a few insincere or obvious directions, but due both to Rush’s subtle hand and Ferrell’s understated turn, the film earns its later-stage poignancy. Kenny doesn’t offer cheap wisdom but instead offers a couple of observations in one or two very casually played scenes that give Nick a window into his life. Nor does Samantha become the woman who saves Nick from his self-destructing ways. Even the appearance of an old high school acquaintance, Delilah (Laura Dern), goes in a fresh, interesting direction.
As we mentioned at the outset, Ferrell delivers a dramatic performance that doesn’t just find him dialing things down, but finding wholly new notes and tones we haven’t seen from him before. His charisma stays intact, but it’s used to a completely different effect than we’re used to. The rest of the cast is solid if not particularly standout, but special mention must be made of Rebecca Hall as well. She makes it look effortless, but she does some remarkable things here, particularly with her facial expressions, which so perfectly inform how her character feels about Nick and his situation without having to say it. It’s the third film we’ve seen her in this year (the other two being “Please Give” and “The Town“) and she’s an actress whose time is certainly coming.
“Everything Must Go” definitely doesn’t break new ground; it isn’t new. We heard some grumbling following the screening that the film fits a very comfortable, and in some minds, tired, mold. But that’s not an issue here. Sometimes a familiar story is welcome if it’s told in a new or even slightly different way. And Dan Rush’s quietly confident film does just that; it’s a minor study of a man at the end of his rope who, with the help of a couple of people who pass through his life finds, if not quite salvation, then at least the path that will get him there. [B]