I suspect EVERYTHING MUST GO was written and greenlit for production before the Great Recession. It’s a film that belongs in the early 2000’s when we started to see movies that explored white suburban angst and characters explored their spiritual side by questioning the meaning of life (i.e. AMERICAN BEAUTY, LIFE AS A HOUSE, ABOUT SCHMIDT, and THE WEATHER MAN). Some of these listed films are not bad and they still hold up upon second viewing. However, in our current economic climate, a film like EVERYTHING MUST GO simply comes off as being pretentious, unrelatable, and out-of-touch with today’s society. I enjoy seeing comedians such as Will Ferrell take a role against type, but unfortunately, Ferrell should have waited for a dramatic script that offered him a much meatier role than what he plays here.

EVERYTHING MUST GO is about Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell), a salesman who has just been fired for his drinking problem on the job. To make things worse, his wife leaves him the same day, changes all the locks in the house, and puts all of his belongings out on the front lawn. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, Halsey buys himself a 12-pack of beer and parks himself on his lawn, surrounded by all of his belongings. He befriends a neighborhood boy, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace – Biggie Smalls’ son), and a young married and pregnant woman (Rebecca Hall) who has just moved across the street from Halsey. However, Halsey soon discovers that he cannot remain on his front lawn and that he must leave within 3 days. During those 3 days, Halsey embarks on a introspective journey that makes him realize something, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you because the film preferred to remain vague and senseless.

The story is based on Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance,” a short story that is about 1,600 words. The story is nothing more than about a man who sits on his lawn, surrounded by his personal belongings, and he decides to sell everything in a huge yard sale. Dan Rush, the writer/director of EVERYTHING MUST GO, optioned the story from Carver’s widow, the poet Tess Gallagher. Obtaining film rights to the story, Rush then set about adding a back story to Nick Halsey and creating secondary characters to populate the story. Most of what you see in EVERYTHING MUST GO is really Dan Rush’s creation with the original Raymond Carver story serving as a center point for the entire screenplay.

Despite the shortcomings of this film, Dan Rush deserves to be commended for proving that you’re never too old to direct your first film. EVERYTHING MUST GO is the feature film debut of 41-year old Dan Rush. Previously, Rush was a successful commercial director. He got his start in Hollywood during the 1990’s as an assistant at TriStar Pictures. From there he broke into directing commercials, landing such clients as Sony and Bell Atlantic.

I didn’t even need to know that EVERYTHING MUST GO was directed by a first-time director because it shows by just watching the movie. Having already taken creative license to expand upon Carver’s source material, Rush could and should have raised the stakes of his main character, created more situations and/or expounded upon his existing scenes. Perhaps due to his lack of self-confidence as a first time director, Rush appears hesitant in telling his story. Many scenes are not fully fleshed out and so we’re left with a story that is full of situations that Will Ferrell’s character finds himself in that feel like they should have had more to them. One example takes place later in the film where Nick Halsey sees his former boss in a restaurant bathroom. Nick’s former boss pretty much puts him down before leaving the bathroom and leaving his beer behind on a urinal. Nick then takes the beer, finds his former boss sitting with some young ladies, hands him the beer, and simply walks away. I know the intent of that scene was to show Nick trying to kick his alcoholic habit, but this was such a weak way of showing that. You expect more to happen in that scene, but it doesn’t. Much of the film unfortunately feels this way.

As I mentioned before, in today’s economic climate, the story and premise of EVERYTHING MUST GO feels out of touch with today’s society. The setup of a character reevaluating his/her life after losing everything is not anything we have never seen before, but this sort of spiritual reawakening/finding yourself type of story feel’s so pretentious these days. Worse, although many people can certainly relate to Nick Halsey’s dilemma, what you’ll find more difficult to relate to is how Nick confronts his dilemma.

The casting of Will Ferrell to play Nick Halsey is perfect. Ferrell looks like the quintessential suburban, middle-class white guy and he succeeds in capturing the sort of blasé, nonchalant, self-involved, and apathetic characteristics that are usually attributed to this stereotype. I’m sure Ferrell relished the idea of playing against type by taking on a dramatic role. However, Ferrell’s character is written as if the mere fact that he’s acting serious and depressed is good enough for the comedic actor and nothing further is necessary to develop his character. I wasn’t expecting Ferrell to be completely sympathetic, but I was expecting him to be somewhat interesting to watch and to see him undergo some sort of journey or arc. Instead, his character is neither interesting nor does the character undergo any discernible arc. He begins the film an alcoholic and he ends it as one. Although he manages to sell all of his personal belongings by the end of the film, his situation has barely changed from the beginning of the film because he still has no home and nowhere to go to. On a technical note, Arizona (where this film is set) is a community property state and generally, whatever you and your spouse bring into a marriage gets split in half upon divorce. So this idea that Nick Halsey can simply be kicked out of his own house and he cannot be let back inside is false. If he had half a brain, he would have figured this out.

One of the characters that Dan Rush created specifically for the film is the young neighborhood boy, Kenny, who befriends Nick. As is the tendency of so many uninspired filmmakers, the boy is your typical wiser-than-he-looks kind of kid. He gives Nick life advice and sort of coaxes him to deal with his life’s problems. There is nothing with the actor’s performance, but the character is one we have seen countless of times in many films. Nick Halsey also befriends the new neighbor across the street. She is played by Rebecca Hall, an actress who is as bland looking and annoying sounding as any casting director can find. Her poorly developed character doesn’t help things either. For one, the character is a moron for not immediately figuring out that Nick has been kicked out by his wife and he’s living on his lawn. Furthermore, she is a bland and unlikeable character with zero personality. The only help she really gives Nick is at the very end when she hands him a Polaroid and a fortune cookie message taped to it that reads something like “Do not give up” or something to that effect. That is some deep sage advice.

EVERYTHING MUST GO is not a complete wash. One bright spot is the detective character played by Michael Pena, an actor who never fails to impress me, even when he appears in a bad film. Pena’s character sponsors Nick Halsey through the AA program they went through. There is a surprising revelation at the end of the film that offered a glimpse of interest in the story, but unfortunately, we see precious little of Pena’s character. We also see precious little of Laura Dern’s character, who appears in a brief scene where Nick visits an old high school acquaintance and, in an awkward moment, attempts to rekindle a relationship that died a long time ago. Dern is wonderful as always, but like Pena, she is underutilized in the story.

One of screenwriting truism’s is that adapting a short story risks creating a story that is too thin substantively (as opposed to adapting a long novel that offers a lot for the screenwriter to work with. EVERYTHING MUST GO suffers from the lack of material in the short story by Raymond Carver. Consequently, the single device introduced in the short story (of a man who sits on his lawn and surrounded by his personal belongings) gets thin and repetitive when adapted cinematically. This movie offers very little in terms of conflict – its really just Nick Halsey in battle with his own temptation to sit around and do nothing with his life. As an aside, even when the film does grab you, whatever attraction it offers quickly dissipates when the film’s music score plays in the background. Overall, EVERYTHING MUST GO deserved to be handled by someone who was not afraid to take a few bold steps and explore the extremes of what a character like Nick Halsey would do in his situation. Instead, the movie plays it safe and as a result, it’s a forgettable experience.