Everything Must Go
As authors go, Raymond Carver is not a golden boy of Hollywood — more a precious gem popping up here and there in the work of directors with a particular itch to scratch. Cinema is a tough sell for Carver’s stories, with their introspection, lack of resolute narrative, and brevity. There have been attempts; Robert Altman’s inflated opus Short Cuts comes to mind. Altman attempted to film an entire anthology, roughly interconnecting multiple storylines into a single mishmash. For Everything Must Go, Dan Rush, serving as both first-time director and script adapter, focuses his attention on one story, Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”
Raymond Carver is notable for his sparse presentation, but for the purposes of a feature film, some padding is needed. The greatest obstacle comes in the casting of the central character. Will Ferrell has built his career playing parts that are decidedly immature. He is not an actor who is nuanced or understated, two qualities needed to make Nick Halsey, the central character, believable. What Ferrell has going for him is an earnest desire to be taken seriously. Nick is an upper-middle-class alcoholic whose wife leaves him on the same day that he loses his job. He returns home to find his possessions scattered about the front lawn, the locks changed on the tightly shut, empty house. By way of a yard sale, Nick spends the next three days living on the lawn, ruing his miserable existence. He drinks constantly, rummages through his belongings, and enlists the aid of a chubby neighborhood boy (in exchange for baseball lessons).
Ferrell is as willfully pathetic as any Carver protagonist requires — to say he has the same soul is another matter. Fortunately, he receives ample support from Rebecca Hall as the new neighbor. Much like her character’s approach with Nick, Hall is always there to help Ferrell along, to soften the edge when he is anxious for his old antics or to spruce up the dynamic when he is retreating from the drama. Her natural beauty is an effective contrast to Ferrell’s frumpy gloom.
Carver’s stories are about finding function in the folly, about the broken wisdom of the absurd. The film is careful not to neglect those touches. “What is normal?” Nick challenges his neighbor when considering the oddity of all those around him. “I just don’t hide in my house like all of you.” This becomes thematic, as most of the movie is filmed outdoors, and the photography maintains a suburban freshness: sunny daytime followed by glowing nights. Once we have been acclimated to the patience of the film, we can begin to appreciate its subtle graces, its focus on banal, human dilemmas: trying to climb a fence with a collapsing recycling bin as a stepladder, struggling to make the words “Yard Sale” fit on a poster-board sign. The humor is always trimmed to a mild quirk — more a raised eyebrow than a grin.
An eventual climax of crisis does come, and Ferrell wisely plays it short, allowing others to take their bite of the drama. Ultimately, the film is novel because of its insistent focus on life’s conventions. This and the thematic landscape of Carver: alcoholism, infidelity, the metaphor of one’s stuff spread out on the lawn in a public display of personal shame.
If nothing else, the film is an opportunity to see familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. The most notable departure is Natalie Portman as a cash-strapped Good Samaritan. Portman shows some integrity for the character: frazzled ponytail, flimsy bangs, saucer-sized rims on her eyeglasses. “Do I look like a lady?” she muses, concerned about the appearance of age.
The story centers around TJ (played with vulnerable conviction by Devin Brochu), a diminutive scrapper on the herbivore end of the high school food chain. Brochu ably conveys TJ’s sense of emotional displacement, frantically pedaling his bike to catch a tow truck as it removes the car wreck his mother died in or wandering cautiously around his grief-stricken father and terminally-ill grandmother. There is a palpable, but none too realized, conflict of grief management between father and son. Dad seeks out the contemporary cure of support groups and antidepressants, the son sits stubbornly in the death car after its been sold, refusing to budge. Rather than pursue this dynamic for its more human quality, the film takes the easy way out, offering up a radical distraction to the family tragedy.
This distraction comes in the form of the title character, a tattooed, foul-mouthed squatter, unruly to the point of cliché (“Have you ever been skull fucked?”). Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also looking for a bit of anomaly on his résumé, has a grand time with the role, but once the visual shock fades, there’s little left to the character. He wanders through most of the film shirtless, with a head-banger mop and a morphine physique. His emergence into the story is believable enough, but the film never seems sure of how to convey his presence. Hesher is both boarder and interloper, both protector and terrorizer — a guardian devil. Most of his dialogue consists of obscene stories that provide a metaphoric fit to the more realistic drama going on around him. Even once his character has been established, the persona is still illusory. However, the most insistent disbelief is that such a character would be of any benefit to a grieving family. The film tries to portray him as a heavy-metal Rasputin, both dangerous and illuminating, but beyond the rebel appeal, the guy is just an asshole.
The film opens with an amusing splash of awkward sex, offering an opportunity to laugh at our own amorous fumbling — what D.H. Lawrence called “the ridiculous bouncing of the buttocks.” This focus on believability over expectation permeates the film, and the audience is rewarded for it. We are invited to laugh without having to accommodate a film’s desperate attempt to top itself. Much of this can be credited to director Paul Feig, who has the good sense to keep his camerawork and pacing on a moderate keel, but the highest praise is owed to star and cowriter Kristen Wiig.
The movie is unquestionably from a female perspective, a quality that is pervasive but never exclusive. Wiig plays Annie, a heart-ravaged, recession-broken middle-ager struggling to maintain an emotional parallel with her best friend whose life is on the up-and-up. The chief area of contention is the latter’s upcoming nuptial for which Annie is the maid of honor, a role that places her in direct competition with the younger, prettier, wealthier friend from the groom’s side.
Wiig achieves a splendid vulnerability as Annie. Her tender facial expressions, her reticent mannerisms — they make us laugh, but they also reveal a woman who is desperate not to become desperate. Annie struggles to compose herself as her derelict car fails in the hands of a snooty club’s valet. She rues the graffiti-littered sign of her failed bakery. These moments sound sad, but they are also quite funny. Wiig’s performance is as heartening as it is hilarious.
Some moments do miss the mark, but for the most part, the movie maintains its integrity. Even the minor characters, while simply filler, are genuine: real faces with real bodies and real problems. This authenticity is so pronounced that the sheen of luxury appears ugly, and the customary realization of inner strength at the film’s end has credibility.
Reviewed in this week’s listings: The Bang Bang Club, Insidious, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, and POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.