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Abstinence Lonely Education

Early on in Everything Must Go, new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall) encouragingly tells Nick (Will Ferrell), “You’re going to feel great when you’ve gotten rid of all this stuff.” “This stuff” being all of Nick’s worldly possessions, currently arrayed on the front lawn of his Scottsdale house. But given that Nick has just been fired from his sales management job for alcohol-fueled misconduct, and — simultaneously with that — his wife has left him, frozen all his assets, and changed the locks on the house, Nick’s personal property would appear to be much less of a problem than all the emotional baggage he’s carting around.

Indeed, for most of the film, Nick displays little sense of urgency about changing his circumstances, clinging tenaciously to his stuff even as he’s supposed to be having a yard sale, looking to others to rescue him, and drinking continuously. One gets the sense that if the law permitted it, Nick would be content to live out his days sitting in his favorite recliner on his front lawn, as long as the beer didn’t run out.

Writer-director Dan Rush has set himself a challenging task with this film, aiming to capture both the absurdity and pathos of an alcoholic’s disintegrating life without descending into either mockery or the abyss of despondency. He’s succeeded in charting a middle course, but whether or not this makes Everything Must Go successful cinematically is another question.

That’s because it’s easy to say what Everything Must Go isn’t — it’s not Barfly, embracing its protagonist’s addiction as an essential character trait, and it’s not The Hangover, where merely suggesting a 12-step program would get you branded a killjoy. It’s most definitely not Leaving Las Vegas, a dark tale of despair and self-destruction. It’s a little harder to decide what the film is. With its occasionally faltering pace and assortment of characters, it feels at times more like a series of vignettes than a single coherent story.

This bolted-together feel may well be a function of the source material: the film is nominally based on the Raymond Carver short story, “Why Don’t You Dance?” (part of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). Barely seven pages in length, with only three nameless characters, this story would seem to hold little promise as the basis for a feature-length motion picture. So Rush has fleshed things out, inserting characters and action, giving everybody a name and a back story. To a certain extent, these additions are true to the spirit of Carver’s booze-soaked oeuvre, which is full of cheap betrayals and lives strained but not yet broken by alcoholism.

In Everything Must Go, however, this parade of characters seems intended to convince us that although Nick may be a screw-up and a disappointment to those who love him — someone who can (and does), in the throes of alcohol withdrawal, get viciously personal with the pregnant Samantha, who’s just trying to help him — he’s really not such a bad guy. After all, he befriends lonely neighborhood kid Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace). And compare Nick to Frank (Michael Peña) — Nick’s self-righteous and perfidious AA sponsor — or Elliot (Stephen Root), his supercilious neighbor who’s harboring a kinky little secret. Alcoholic or no, Nick’s clearly supposed to be superior to these two louts. And Laura Dern puts in an appearance as an old high school friend of Nick’s, to remind him of a kindness he had showed her twenty years earlier and to express her faith in his goodness.

What first-time director Rush seems not to realize is that by casting Ferrell, America’s goofball-in-chief, he’s already sent viewers the message that Nick, for all his flaws, is a sympathetic character. This is not to sell Ferrell short; he gives Nick some sharp edges when he needs to. But it would have been interesting to show us Nick being a jerk and a disappointment more often and then trusting us to like him anyway. And Everything Must Go doesn’t really succeed as a tale of redemption and recovery because — although Nick is indisputably having a bad week — we don’t get the sense that he’s hit rock bottom. Then again, Carver didn’t write morality tales, and Rush hasn’t made one either. But give Rush credit: despite the trailer’s attempt to make this seem like a feel-good movie with an element of romance, at the end of Everything Must Go, it’s clear that the only person who can rescue Nick from the liquidation sale that his life has become is Nick himself.

Everything Must Go. Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Michael Peña, and Laura Dern star in a film written and directed by Dan Rush, and based on the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver.

Rated R for language, some sexual content, and lots of irresponsible alcohol consumption; running time: 97 minutes.

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