Everything Must Go—including the script. Heck, it’s a bargain: second-hand wisdom. The lede of one review asks, “Does Will Ferrell have a Bill Murray future?” To which I reply, “Probably not.” Murray has always been cool jazz—subtle, sarcastic, recessive. Ferrell isn’t hot jazz, exactly; but he’s a hot mess—completely, commercially, often hilariously, unsubtle. His satire is a toothless grin, however, because it’s disarmed by that classic catchall: He may be crunky (Old School), creepy (Wedding Crashers), misogynistic (Anchorman), ignorant (Talladega Nights), or naïve (Elf), but we’re secure in our knowledge that, behind that blank look, lies a lovable lost boy, infinitely expiable. As an actor, he’s an apologist for his characters; their hearts are in the right place, after all. It’s a shtick that’s been a staple of popular entertainment since long before moving pictures first flickered; but it’s no coincidence that the last 10 years have been a boon for Ferrell. Beneath our hawkish lockstep we had a renewed need to rationalize male bluster. Maybe Anchorman became such a dorm-room blockbuster because it made young white guys feel they had license to be dickheads—as if being a dickhead were funny in and of itself. Guys will be guys, sure; but at a time when the straight white man is—fatuously, as if in place of all authority figures—being forecast as obsolete, guys who at one point had a straight-and-narrow path to achieving “manhood” will naturally gravitate to ironic masculinity. Because, for them, it isn’t really ironic. And I don’t think it’s really ironic, either, that one of Ferrell’s biggest boosters was his impression of George W. Bush. When he reprised it, for a one-man show in 2009, he still couldn’t get past his outsize-stripling salve; it was as relevant as satire as a joke about Hitler’s mustache in 1945. It isn’t a question of his politics, but of his instincts as an entertainer.
That his earnestness comes to very little here isn’t entirely his fault; it may have amounted to a lot more if he’d been allowed to play a character. Dry Ferrell is dry toast. I really want to believe that the writer-director Dan Rush read Raymond Carver’s story “Why Don’t You Dance?” and was inspired to sculpt a sympathetic bust of a crumbling alcoholic; that he saw something resembling his vision in Ferrell; that Ferrell saw truth in the role and wanted to challenge himself as an actor; and that Rush was just too inexperienced to pull any of it off. I want that to be true. Honest. But to say that any film is based on a story of 1,600 words, and then have them be 1,600 words written by one of the most celebrated American authors of the last 30 years, and one whose reputation is based on opacity and brevity—well, my inner skeptic begins to scratch. Literally three basic premises are borrowed from the story—and are inflated until they implode. If this was a better, more imaginative movie, it wouldn’t be such a bothersome issue, but Carver’s name seems almost to have been appropriated as a form of social climbing, just as Christopher Nolan used Marion Cotillard and Édith Piaf in Inception; they’re high-brow brands. (To be fair, the author’s name may have also been instrumental in getting the film distributed.) Regardless, Carver prescribes ambiguity and Rush dispenses generics. Glenn Howerton, who plays the young hotshot who cans Ferrell’s droopy dipsomaniac, is typecast and turned into a stereotype; and there’s nothing in the central character that suggests an alcoholic, a sales executive, or even a spouse. He’s a rough draft. When Ferrell and Michael Peña, as his A.A. sponsor—and seemingly only friend—prattle with one another, they’re as chummy as perfect strangers. (Peña is posed like a black-eyed psychopath.) It’s as if Rush, the director, assumed his dialogue would speak for itself. But Rush, the screenwriter, has a poor sense of structure, and squirts discontents as globby as Jell-O shots.
So even if the filmmakers’ intentions are sincere, as I want to—and mostly do—believe, the hollowness of their conception is self-destructive. The details about the characters’ lives are so trite and archaic that Everything Must Go becomes as square as The Square. Left hanging in this void, the psychiatric gristle seems to exist for its own self-congratulatory sake. Murray got through similar sad-sack mid-life-crisis material in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, but he had a carousel of former flames to illuminate all the facets of himself that he’d since blacked out. Ferrell has a touching moment with the radiant Laura Dern; she remembers a good deed he did in high school. But the rest of his background is like a case history rather than a past; and he doesn’t display Murray’s ability to improvise what isn’t in the text. And to top it all off with a moldy maraschino cherry, Rush has the actor prove his indie credibility by having him teach a lonely black kid, with body-image issues, to play ball. It’s E-Z sensitivity. Touching—like a pair of fingers pressing down on the back of your tongue. Everything must go.