Reviewed by Stephen Himes
Young Murray characters like “Ghostbusters” pseudo-scientist Peter Venkman and “Stripes” cabby-turned-army recruit John Winger see themselves slipping into middle age; Murray turns their panic into manic comedy. Old Murray characters have already experienced and lost glory. Murray turns their desperation into deep sadness, like “Lost in Translation” fading star Bob Harris, who is reduced to Japanese booze commercials, and “Broken Flowers” former playboy Don Johnston after yet another young floozy walks out on him.
Where Murray’s comedy signaled the end of Boomer anti-authoritarianism, Ferrell’s is about Gen X suburban white male panic. In the post-Burgundy age of political correctness and the death of macho, suburban desk jockeys participate in masquerades of masculinity. Ferrell turns this confusion into comedy: characters who look to Mike Ditka for help coaching the kids’ soccer team, are Francophilic Nascar drivers, or start a fraternity at age 30.
The quintessential Ferrell moment is when “Old School”’s Frank the Tank promised his wife he wouldn’t drink because tomorrow he’s going to Home Depot to shop for wallpaper and maybe Bed, Bath, and Beyond, if they have time. Then the college kids hand him the beer bong (“It tastes so good when it hits the lips!”), and soon she almost runs over his streaking buttocks in the SUV. Like Young Murray, Young Ferrell sees the sun going down and panics.
“Everything Must Go” is Frank the Tank after fifteen years of marriage. Over time, the beer became more important than Home Depot, the wife, then the job, and now he’s locked out of his house with his stuff in the front yard. Deep down you know you’re a fraud. That’s what the beer is for.
So the film makes sense for Ferrell, but does Ferrell makes sense for the film? Or, as Go Memphis’ John Beifuss asks, “what’s the point of this ‘creative’ casting” when, say, Paul Giamatti, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or Richard Jenkins could more ably play the down-on-his-luck schlub?
Loosely adapted from Raymond Carver’s four-page story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, writer/director Dan Rush stays true to the minimalist style by not filling in too many blanks. Did Nick Halsey (Ferrell), a charismatic former all star athlete who built a successful career in sales, use alcohol to help him close deals? Maybe. Unrealistic expectations heaped on a former golden child? Did he and the wife not adjust to the calm of the suburbs and turn to alcohol? Some combination of these? We can’t be sure, but the unspoken backstory haunts the audience while we watch Halsey try to recreate his life on the front lawn.
Not to compare “Everything Must Go” to Death of a Salesman, but as a character type, Nick Halsey is the Great Recession’s Willy Loman, another former athlete whose American Dream fell apart in the suburbs. Casting Giamatti, Hoffman, or Jenkins as Halsey would be as wrong-noted as, say, casting Dustin Hoffman as Loman, as he was in the version most high schoolers see. But the Salesman script specifically calls for a big man—the former athlete whose notions of “likeability” represents the superficiality of the American Dream. In Broadway’s 1999 revival of Salesman, Brian Dennehy’s Loman is much more of the embodiment of Arthur Miller’s false hope. Compare them: The physical presence of the actor completely changes the story.
Similarly, Ferrell is a charismatic big man—not that Giamatti, et al, aren’t better actors, but they don’t carry themselves like former all-stars whose faded glory can no longer close a sale. Thus, Ferrell isn’t stunt casting—he’s essential to the character. Think “Sideways”: Nick Halsey, the executive VP of sales, is Thomas Haden Church after the acting career goes bad, not Paul Giamatti the middle school English teacher.
Unlike Willy Loman, the salesman who bought into the American Dream and let it destroy him, Nick Halsey represents a more modern America: When you lose it all, start over. Even a case deep with all his stuff on the lawn, Halsey does what a lot of Americans who lost their jobs in the recession did: Go into business for himself. Halsey even teaches a local kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Notorious B.I.G.) the art of the deal, and together they become unlikely entrepreneurial partners. Of course Giamatti could pull that off, but the physical presence and inherent likability of Ferrell makes it more believable and more tragic—otherwise, he’s just some fat sadsack whose wife walked out on him.
Raymond Carver’s style of minimalism doesn’t precisely translate to the screen, but that doesn’t mean Rush and Ferrell’s work is inferior or unworthy. In Carver’s story, a young couple shares a few drinks with an unnamed man while scoring a few bargains at his yard sale. Eventually, the man puts on some records and asks them to dance in his driveway. The girl and the man have a moment. The story ends when she later tries and fails to explain the whole thing to friends. We sense that the girl is a free spirit and the boy is more reserved—eventually he’s going to end up having a yard sale after she dances on.
So, Beifuss’ criticism that
“Unlike Carver, Rush is afraid audiences won’t understand his meaning, so he has Nick tell the neighbor she should close her blinds, ‘so you don’t have to look at your future’”
seems valid—in fact, it’s the unspoken theme of “Why Don’t You Dance?” Rush’s story is a bit clunky at times, and he can’t quite resist some clichés. But distrust negative reviews relying on the knee-jerk “It’s not as good as the literature” cliché. Rush’s style is best described as indie-minimalist; he resists quirkifying his story with lovable misfits, and isn’t afraid to let his hero be ugly.
More to the point, Stevens notes that although Rush engages in some “narrative vamping” to fill the story to ninety minutes, “the spaciousness gives Ferrell room to create his character from the ground up.” Ferrell doesn’t just play downbeat; his technique is mannered without being actorly. It’s much like Murray’s in “Lost in Translation,” where he often made unseen half-gestures toward Scarlet Johanssen, leaving the audience to wonder what he really wanted. Ferrell is less like Murray in “Broken Flowers,” in which he was just sad-eyed, leaving the audience what these women ever saw in him—we never saw glimpses of what the man they knew.
Ferrell gives us those glimpses. With “Everything Must Go,” some critics have complained that Ferrell gets a few token one-liners, which is true—and essential to the character. Basically, the trailer compiles the moments where we see the witty, sharp man he once was. His deadpan comparisons of the yard sale to his corporate job are funny (“Discussing salary and responsibilities upfront—smart.”), but also suggest he’s already started working on a way out, if he can stop drinking it out over the next five days.
Beyond the plot, Ferrell also creates a devastating portrait of dependence—not the showy alcoholism of Billy Bob Thornton, or Nicolas Cage’s suicide mission in “Leaving Lost Vegas.” Once in the yard, Ferrell lumbers around, using his normally comic bulk (remember the streaking?) as a weight he must concentrate on balancing. Even simple tasks like getting a pair of socks requires a meticulous process, requiring him to pull himself up, lumber across the yard, reach out and balance himself on the table, lean over, get his balance without using the hand his beer is in, open the drawer, and do it all over again to get back to the recliner. In fact, once Ferrell gets a PBR in his hand, he never lets go. Even when setting it down for a few seconds would make opening drawers easier, he uses the beer to hold himself up—an unconscious tick that shows us exactly why Nick Halsey drinks.
In fact, we find out that Halsey turned to Alcoholics Anonymous to try to get his life back together. Carver would recognize the kindred spirit.