The new Will Ferrell movie Everything Must Go is based on a typically sparse and despairing story by Raymond Carver called Why Don’t You Dance? Since he specialized in knowing gloom, what we talk about when we talk about Carver does not usually include fun, comedy or glee—which is what we usually talk about when we talk about Ferrell. But Ferrell fits uncannily well into Carver country, and in this small but sturdy film, he challenges any assumption that he might be limited to comedy. Certainly this is the first time he’s moved me to tears that weren’t produced by hard laughter.
The original Carver story is very short, only 1620 words. A man surveys his front lawn, covered with furniture. A young couple wanders by and, assuming a yard sale, begin to shop. The man is agreeable and offers them whiskey. Carver lets us know that the man used to share the bed with a now-absent wife, but his reasons for lawn living are never explained, and Why Don’t You Dance? is punctuated by more question marks than the one at the end of the title. In Everything Must Go, first-time writer-director Dan Rush takes the same situation—a heavy drinker living on his lawn—and answers the outstanding questions. He gives the man a name (Nick Halsey), a profession (just-fired marketing executive) and a clear diagnosis (lapsed recovering alcoholic). By providing a hopeful resolution, Rush alleviates some of Carver’s despair, but this is still the essentially melancholy story of a man cast from suburban comforts into a position of sudden, very public humiliation. As Nick’s AA sponsor and his lone friend Frank (Michael Pena) puts it, Nick’s life is “so damn sad.”
Any good comedian is by necessity well-acquainted with the vulnerability of humiliation, so it’s not surprising that Ferrell can tap effectively into the agony of Nick’s nakedness before the world. In addition to moving his worldly goods—most of them toys for manly recreation—to the lawn, his wife has changed the locks and frozen their bank accounts. When the cash in his wallet runs out, he can’t even buy beer. But Ferrell goes deeper; Nick gradually confronts the reasons for his arrival at rock bottom. While his wife never appears on screen, the visual evidence of her rage in the form of the expelled furniture; her refusal to answer Nick’s calls reinforces the sense that his screw-ups are not to be taken lightly. Nick isn’t the kind of cute, messy puppy Ferrell has so often played (in movies like Old School and Elf).
Nick is far from loveable. Even when he is leaving unduly sweet voice mails for his wife, a storm hovers on Ferrell’s brow; when his porcine eyes aren’t dull or hazed with alcohol, they seem mean. Signs of at least a materially good life is there, but so is a corruption of spirit. In the beginning of the film, the novelty of Ferrell playing it straight kept me rapt—when is he going to crack a joke?—but what held me in place was a curiosity about how Nick would react and adapt to the havoc he had wreaked in his own life. The foils Rush added, carefully and respectfully, to expand Carver’s story, in the shape of friends and neighbors, only increased that interest. There’s a disapproving neighbor (Stephen Root, giving comic relief), a lonely, overweight kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) who wants Nick to teach him how to play baseball, an old high school classmate (Laura Dern, doing, as usual, a lot with a little) and finally, a pregnant woman (Rebecca Hall) who just moved in across the street. Everything about Hall’s character suggests freshness and possibility, but not—thankfully—in a romantic sense. Her Samantha is someone a man would like to look his best for, but at the same time, the person most likely to have compassion for a drunk lolling on his recliner in his front yard. In her previous films The Town and Please Give, Hall also embodied saviors who were more than just saintly; her eyes always hint at the anticipation of mischief and joy.
It might seem that it takes enormous bravery or arrogance for a first-time filmmaker to adapt the revered Carver. When Robert Altman did it, he was a veteran director, well-revered himself, and he used nine Carver stories and one poem as the basis for Short Cuts (1993). But it is actually a wonder more filmmakers don’t flock to Carver. His scaffolding is so beautiful and reliable; it’s like buying an old house to renovate rather than designing your own. In the last line of Why Don’t You Dance? the girl from the yard sale is still trying to puzzle out what was going on with the man: “There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.” Rush succeeds where she failed; he gets at the “more” there, talks it out and makes sense of it. Then, as the Band’s version of “I Shall Be Released” swells on the soundtrack (does this ballad ever fall to induce hope?) he quietly gives Nick a chance to move forward. Though very different from Carver’s deliberately unfathomed ending, the way Everything Must Go answers Carver’s invitation to the reader—to project as he or she pleases—is a tribute of another sort. And while Carver was not the sort to have his old dogs learn new tricks, I have a hunch he’d have enjoyed seeing Ferrell, such a strapping, quintessentially American performer, take a dramatic risk and succeed.