"Everything Must Go," starring Will Ferrell, is based on a 1981 Raymond Carver short story called "Why Don't You Dance?" about a man who, for unclear reasons, has strewn his worldly possessions onto his lawn. His life, or at least its material contents, becomes a kind of cosmic yard sale.
Carver's metaphor is all too real in these recessionary times and serves as a springboard for first-time writer-director Dan Rush's film. By fleshing out the story, Rush loses Carver's eerie suggestiveness, the sense of violence percolating beneath the humdrum. Rush's literalmindedness about the woes of Ferrell's Nick Halsey – his wife threw him out, changed the locks, and canceled his credit cards – in some ways feels closer to John Cheever than to Carver. Still, the picture of Nick, beyond zonked, surveying the sum total of his belongings, hits home. It's powerfully sad.
On the same day that he was thrown out by his wife (whom we never see), Nick, whose drinking has caught up with him, also loses his job as a salesman. At first, he doesn't want to do anything about the mess on the lawn. He can't bear to part with any of it – the furniture, the blenders, the sporting goods, the old LPs, the high school yearbooks. Rush draws on the intense attachment we can feel for the mundane objects in our lives. For Nick, these things are talismans from a past that promised a lot more than it delivered.
There's a wonderful sequence where he reads a flowery inscription in his senior high school yearbook from a girl and then tracks her down. Delilah (Laura Dern), now a single mother, is still living in the same suburban Phoenix neighborhood. Their brief, awkward meeting is remarkably underplayed.
Nick doesn't open up to her about his predicament and she doesn't pry, but she knows he's hurting. She tells him, "You have a good heart and that doesn't change," and she's right. Nick at that moment is brought back to the person he was – and, deep down, still is.
Ferrell has rarely attempted serious – or in this case, seriocomic – roles. When he has, as in "Stranger Than Fiction," he often seems underpowered, as if, in zapping his comic side, he neutralized what was most original about him as a performer.
But because Nick is so benumbed by his predicament, Ferrell's deadpan makes sense here. When it cracks – especially in the scene with Delilah, or in the sequences involving Samantha (the wonderful Rebecca Hall), a pregnant young photographer who has moved in across the street – you can see the sorrow and the anger that the blankness was covering up.
Perhaps because he was worried that the film might seem too static and underpopulated, Rush works in a few too many moments involving a sympathetic cop (Michael Peña) and a local kid, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.).
The cop happens to be Nick's AA sponsor, which is a bit too convenient, and the boy is a homespun deus ex machina.
Rush wants us to believe that, by ridding himself of his stuff, Nick is liberated. Given what has come before, this rings false. (Is he also a member of Hoarders Anonymous?) But "Everything Must Go" stays with you anyway. If there is a single image that we take away from Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," it is of Willy Loman weighted down to his very soul by his suitcases. The image that holds in this modern-day salesman's serenade is Nick the salesman reduced to selling off his own life. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)