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Everything Must Go: Honest, Relentless, Wrong

By Brock Wilbur · May 16, 2011

It was the best of opening weekends; it was the worst of opening weekends.

Bridesmaids would have crushed Everything Must Go any other time, but thankfully Brides is such a mega-success that it’s sold-out in most theatres, forcing movie patrons to choose between Everything Must Go and Something Borrowed. And Will Ferrell always beats out Kate Hudson. At least he should.

The film follows Nick Halsey (Ferrell), a corporate executive who has failed to keep his alcoholism under control, and winds up losing both his job and his wife in the same day. After vandalizing his boss’ car, he returns home to find all of his earthly belongings moved into the front yard, the locks changed, and a note from his wife officially ending their relationship. Rather than look for a solution, Halsey pulls up a recliner, cracks a beer, and begins living in his front yard.

At the behest of his AA sponsor and police detective friend (played incredibly straight by Eastbound & Down’s Michael Peña), Halsey begrudgingly agrees to turn his front yard rubbish pile into an estate sale, and is given three days to sell everything and move on or be arrested. Ferrell is aided in his efforts by the pregnant neighbor who has moved in across the street (Rebecca Hall) and the teenage Kenny  (C.J. Wallace), a boy with an absentee mother who spends his afternoons circling the block on a bicycle. Also, to a lesser degree by his sexually deviant neighbor, expertly portrayed by Stephen Root.

Halsey and his new teenage sidekick form an uneasy friendship, where Kenny learns about relationships and sports from a man who’s failed miserably at both. Kenny applies what he can, never passing an opportunity to remind Halsey that he’s not listening to his own advice, or wondering why they’re having a yard sale if Halsey cannot bear to part with his stuff.

In a lesser movie, this would serve as fodder for the main character to explore his life through explaining the origins of his belongings to people seeking to purchase it. Thankfully, Rush for the most part keeps the junk… as junk. The focus remains on Halsey’s relationships with the people around him, and what happens in the here and now.

One of the greatest successes of the film is that it never stops twisting the blade. First time writer/director Dan Rush hits us right out the gate with the worst day of Halsey’s life, but makes sure the next day is equally bad. And the day after that. And the day after that. But never without allowing the film to lose its sense of realism. Halsey’s car is repossessed, he’s harassed by the police, and his wife puts a hold on his credit cards. But through it all, Halsey’s worst enemy remains himself. Ferrell’s portrayal of a functional alcoholic teetering on the edge is uncompromising and honest, a character on the other end of the cinematic spectrum from his Ron Burgundy. In fact, it’s hard to shake the feeling Ferrell adapted mannerisms from his George W. Bush impression; imagining a world where the former president never entered politics but instead dwindled in mediocrity somewhere in Arizona.

Structurally, the film makes smart use of its few actors by allowing each a small window to bring exactly what the story requires, and nothing more. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton delivers two fantastic scenes as the antagonistic boss, while Laura Dern’s sequence as a former high school friend manages to lift Halsey’s spirits and crush them at the same time. Comically, the film operates in much the same way, forcing Ferrell to restrain himself to the occasional, very dry joke. It’s never anything more than subtle, he’s never allowed a real physical breakdown, and the film is much better for it. 

Hands down the best scene in the film comes from Halsey and his pregnant neighbor, eating Chinese food in his backyard, next to the small pool his ex-wife converted into a Koi pond. In trying to explain why she left him, Halsey slowly but honestly delves into a tale of the sexual harassment of a co-worker, someone he simply can’t remember, all born from one sip of champagne after six months of sobriety. He’s never defensive, knowing he has no ground to defend from, but also never vies for any sort of pity, knowing there’s none to be found. It’s a perfect example of how the film manages to push for you to dislike Halsey (as it does with some frequency), but it’s hard to give up on someone terrible, at least when they’re being honest.

In the end, the most notable message the film has to bring is its interpretation of growth. The selling off of his personal garbage doesn’t really bring change, nor does the addition of true friends to Halsey’s world. He continually succumbs to alcohol, attacking those that care for him, or some combination of the two, but the only true growth to be found is when he simply stops reacting. It’s an interesting turn from Halsey’s advice throughout the film, which is based on knowing the people around you and always fighting back. The world will continue to be cruel (and by the end, much more cruel), but when you know yourself enough to know that you can’t fight back, apparently that’s when you become a man.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”  Halsey’s character may intentionally not attend AA meetings, but he stumbles towards this truth on his own. There’s no happy ending to be found, except in knowing that tomorrow is another day, even though the honest truth is that there’s nothing happy about that. Everything must (and will) go wrong, so try not to be a jerk about it, because everyone else has it just as bad.