But writer-director Dan Rush, in his debut feature, knows he’s got something special with Everything Must Go, which is based on the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” because he has taken that bare-bones narrative and sneakily infused it with only a few additional details, maintaining the sense of this being little more than a short film with room to breathe. It’s still sparse and quiet, a character study that doesn’t have to go for the desperation of Leaving Las Vegas, a film that Everything resembles, not only thanks to a down-on-his-luck protagonist but also through the relationships these men are able to establish with women.
Halsey, ever the keen observer and salesman, recognizes a kindred spirit in Samantha (Rebecca Hall), his new neighbor, an expectant mother waiting for her salesman husband to join her in their new home and life together.
Samantha has doubts about the new life and whether or not her husband intends to join her, and in Halsey she sees a man on the edge, in need of nurturing; someone who is one step ahead of her on the way to losing his footing and falling off the cliff.
After briefly wallowing in his sad state, Halsey starts reaching out. He connects with young Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a neighborhood kid who becomes his yard sale partner and attempts to reunite with Delilah (Laura Dern), an almost forgotten high school crush whose yearbook note nudges Halsey a half-step back from the waiting abyss. Each person guides Halsey, offering proof that you don’t have to hit the bottom, rather it is sometimes necessary just to know that it is there, an adage that literally appears later in the film.
Present throughout though is Ferrell, and there’s more than a bit of risk placing him so far in front. He is the funny-man, the absurdly broad player who is never even remotely human when he’s funny. Ferrell is a sketch, a sometimes brilliant character, but rarely much of a person. He did come to life in Stranger Than Fiction, a seriocomic role that failed to connect with his typical audience. Like Adam Sandler, he seemingly has the ability to tap into the comic vein that flows through drama and tragedy and he makes us believe in him much more than Sandler ever has.
Oddly here, it is because of our past reminders of some of his comic bits that he makes us care about Halsey. In this sad-sack of a man, traces of Ferrell’s George W. Bush seep into the mix. This is W. if he hadn’t turned his life around thanks to Laura and gone on to become Governor of Texas or President of the United States. It is easy to imagine the junior Bush sitting on his own lawn trying to get rid of all his excess baggage in order to move his ordinary life along.
There are no major epiphanies in these kinds of lives. Halsey doesn’t end up drinking himself into oblivion or into the arms of either his wife or Samantha or Delilah. He won’t go on to become governor or president, or even become a funny-man like Will Ferrell. Yet he is something more than a stock character whose trials and tribulations are played for laughs. Halsey is the evolutionary next step of that anonymous man in Carver’s story, the same one that Rush discovered and carried a bit further and who ended up in the hands and care of Ferrell.
Halsey is human because — thanks both to Ferrell and the character he’s playing — we come to realize that everything is not lost. Grade: A-