Raymond Carver’s fiction has a placeless, uprooted feel. While his stories are unmistakably American, there is a sense that the characters that dwell within them lack any personal ties to their surroundings. By contrast, “Everything Must Go,” based on a story by Mr. Carver, relies on the dry, forgiving desert climate of Phoenix for its very plausibility.
The movie follows a key few days in the life of Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell in a dramatic turn), a midlevel sales executive at a minor outpost of an unspecified large corporation. We meet Nick in the middle of a bad run of luck: He has lost his job, his wife, his sobriety and access to his house all in quick succession. Returning home from getting fired after news of his latest alcohol-fueled transgression reaches his smarmy, youthful superior, Nick finds that his wife has locked the doors to their house, canceled his credit and bank cards and laid out his possessions neatly on their manicured suburban lawn. It’s a striking tableau that serves as a stage for most of the film, as Nick tries, at first pathetically, then with increasing confidence, to reorder his life.
Under the cloudless Arizona skies, Nick settles into a strange new existence, drinking beer, grilling and sleeping in his easy chair. The neighbors don’t care for it, but Nick’s friend and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Frank Garcia (a police detective played by Michael Pena), tells Nick he can put off being evicted for a few days if he is holding a yard sale. He is helped in this by a neighborhood kid named Kenny (played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, a rising acting talent and the son of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.) and by his new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who is pregnant and living alone while her husband is working across the country.
Stripped of the quirky set dressing and novel situation, “Everything Must Go” is essentially the story of a drunk trying to pick himself up after hitting bottom. Although the movie manages a host of attractive, well-rendered scenes, nothing animates Nick’s interest in personal redemption. It’s more of a sketch tragedy — an episodic look at a man’s battle with personal demons, but with little insight into what he is seeking to salvage.
Mr. Ferrell delivers an appropriately minimalist performance — indeed, it’s the most Carveresque aspect of “Everything Must Go.” Whether by design or because of Mr. Ferrell’s limitations as a performer, it’s hard to get a read on Nick. Mr. Ferrell’s eyes, deep set and squinting, are almost invisible. He expresses himself mostly with his mouth and jaw: pressing his lips together to indicate vulnerability or need; making a flat line of his mouth to indicate rising distress or anger. It’s essentially the same tool kit he used in his effective but one-dimensional impersonation of George W. Bush on “Saturday Night Live.” But here, Mr. Ferrell leaves us wanting more of a window into Nick — to see why the characters believe he is redeemable.
TITLE: “Everything Must Go”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Dan Rush, based on a short story by Raymond Carver
RATING: R for language
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS