Combustible Celluloid
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With: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Peña, Stephen Root, Glenn Howerton, Shannon Whirry, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Leslea Fisher, Jason Spisak, Todd Bryant, Leeann Dearing, Andy McDermott, Annie Boon, Scott Takeda
Written by: Dan Rush, based on a story by Raymond Carver
Directed by: Dan Rush
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/10/2010

Everything Must Go (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lawn Baby Gone

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great American short story writer Raymond Carver published his story "Why Don't You Dance" in 1981, and died in 1988. In 2004, the Australian director Andrew Kotatko adapted it for the superb 18-minute short film Everything Goes (starring Hugo Weaving and Abbie Cornish). I praised that film in a newspaper article and subsequently became friends with Kotatko. Later, I helped write liner notes for a DVD release that would never come, mainly because Will Ferrell's company bought the American feature film rights to the story. It is now being released under the suspiciously similar title Everything Must Go.

Though Ferrell's film, directed and adapted by newcomer Dan Rush, contains the same central image as Kotatko's film -- furniture scattered in a front yard -- the new film adds several new characters and more conventional character arcs, and it lacks the anguished beauty of Kotatko's mini-masterpiece. Yet, for all that, the new film is still fairly effective in a diminished capacity. It aims lower, but still hits its target.

Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a salesman with a drinking problem. On the same day, he loses his job and his wife locks him out of the house and throws his stuff on the lawn. (She also closes his bank account and credit cards, and has his car repossessed.) Nick winds up sitting in his front yard, on his easy chair, drinking beer. His AA sponsor, a cop (Michael Pena), lets him know that he is allowed to have a "garage sale" for five days, but otherwise he will be arrested.

He meets the cute, lonely, pregnant neighbor across the street, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), whose husband will be arriving at some later date. He also meets a lonely boy, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), whose mother works as a maid nearby. He enlists Kenny's aid to help with the "garage sale." Stephen Root plays a comical neighbor.

Basically Nick learns to connect with these new people in his life, to give up drinking, and to sell all of his stuff (thereby letting go of his unhappiness). Carver's original story, and Kotatko's short film, focused more on a psychosexual battle of wits between a divorced man and a young couple, taking place over the course of a single drunken afternoon and evening. Nick's five days give him a chance to stretch out, and give him a manageable character arc, while also allowing Ferrell time for some funny business. But the new film has a lovely sequence wherein Nick, after finding an old yearbook, visits a former classmate (Laura Dern) and catches up with her. He doesn't tell her what's going on, but she senses something is up and their talk turns open and honest against the fading Arizona light.

Kotatko's film used Australia's light and open space to glorious effect, and Rush does similar things here with a suburban Arizona setting. It's warm and airy and open, which slowly comes to match Nick's life; at first, he's cluttered and misaligned, like the furniture on the lawn, but eventually he opens up.

Ferrell is fine here, and like many comedians he's especially good at expressing sadness and inadequacy, but I'm not sure it's a definitive role for him. I could have envisioned a number of other actors in the role. In other words, it seems more like an attempt to break out of his comedic persona than taking on a role that truly spoke to him.

Everything Must Go is a good film, and perhaps didn't even need Carver's story to get itself off the ground. But since it does use Carver's story, I hope that viewers will come to read the great writer's work; and, even more so, I hope that some deal can be worked out so that Kotatko's film will see the light of day once again.

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