The fourth step in Alcoholics Anonymous’ well-known twelve-fold path to reform is about taking a “fearless moral inventory” of one’s actions, specifically in the ways alcohol abuse has fueled those actions for the worse. It is, like all the steps, rooted in a commitment to honesty the level of which would make most people break down, which is the entire point: only by being honest about your problems can you work on fixing them. This is the lesson that came back to me time and again watching Everything Must Go, a resolutely safe drama about alcoholism that for the most part lacks the punch of even after-school specials and seems genuinely afraid of making the moral inventory that’s required of the level of filmmaking to which first-time writer-director Dan Rush aspires. The story revolves around an alcoholic who loses his job and his wife and who subsequently struggles to get his life back on track. That kind of struggle is understandable, and it could — should — be fascinating to watch a man battle the demons inside him that pushed him to set fire to his own life in such a cavalier way. But Rush’s screenplay pays mere lip service to the notion of change or redemption, opting instead to let its protagonist float through a few awkward days and then find himself suddenly righted. The film is unwilling to look too deeply into the abyss, and even worse, when it does, it excuses all manner of sins found there. It’s all reward, no risk.
It’s that tension between the idea of redemption and its half-hearted execution that pulls the film apart. Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) gets fired for his inability to control his drinking at the office, and he arrives home to find that his wife, in grandly cinematic fashion, has deposited his belongings on the front yard in reasonably good condition and not without a hint of organization. He’s not exactly a warm guy, and the discovery that his wife has left home, changed the locks, and tossed his stuff sends him sliding into a quiet anger. That anger soon finds outlet in his elliptical conversations with Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a young boy whose mother works as a nurse in the neighborhood, and Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant woman who just moved into the house across the street with her husband. Nick cleans up his things and makes a plan to live on the yard in the short term, though he’s bailed out of this legally questionable situation by Frank (Michael Pena), a detective and friend who gets Nick paperwork to hold a multi-day garage sale, buying him a few days of lawn habitation while he figures things out.
At this point, the stage is set for every standard beat of an indie dramedy, and Rush touches them all in dutiful fashion: the awkward talks with a young boy in which Nick learns something about himself; the jokes at the boy’s expense that Nick pretends to regret; the meetings with Samantha that flirt with flirting before trailing off. The problem is that Rush is afraid to face the truth of the story he’s telling, to follow through on some legitimately interesting premises to see where they go. Nick is a drunk dealing with titanic amounts of self-loathing and depression, but he’s written as a hapless guy with a penchant for PBR and played by Ferrell with disappointing blandness. It’s as if, thirty pages into the script, Rush realized he was working on a total bummer, so he dialed everything back a bit and tried to ride out the length of the feature. Almost nothing of consequence happens to Nick, which is a weird thing to say about a man living on his lawn.
This isn’t totally Ferrell’s fault, either. On one hand, it’s hard to see him really clicking with the role, which demanded an actor with more experience working with darker stories. On the other, he’s proven himself capable of performing well in films outside his wheelhouse of absurdist macho fantasy, most notably the winning Stranger Than Fiction. In that film, he was able to convincingly play a lonely, lovelorn man with no small amount of emotional problems, and he did so largely because the film had a certain breeziness born of confidence in its tone. Rush’s film, in contrast, is an uncertain shambles, and instead of showing Ferrell where he wants him to go, Rush can only sketch out what he wants to avoid. He isn’t directing so much as withholding.
The bigger problem remains Rush’s willingness to let his characters off easy. One evening, Nick is going through a spectacular bout of bitterness and anger, and while talking with Samantha he describes her own situation with psychic accuracy: husband who drinks heavily and travels often for work, a new house in a town where she knows no one, a decision to forfeit her own artistic pursuits to support her husband. He tears down here defenses and facade in moments, lashing out at her for being weak and lost. It’s a harrowing scene, and one of the few in the film played just right. (Ferrell is exhausted by the experience that gave him the knowledge; Hall is looking away while her tears start to silently run.) He tells her to put up some curtains so she doesn’t have to look outside at Nick and see her future. It’s a brutal moment that finally illustrates just what kind of pain Nick’s in, but more importantly, the lengths to which he’ll go in that state to attack those closest to him. This is a perfect beginning to a real tale of redemption, of atonement hard earned, but Rush balks at the chance. Nick visits Samantha the next day with a quiet apology, and a minute later they’re making plans to go to a victory dinner with Kenny. He’s unwilling to let the characters be people, treating them instead like props.
These emotional drawbacks to the story are even more apparent because they’re all that’s available to focus on. The film itself is competently made but lacks any identifying markers. The camera work is average, neither engaging nor jarring; the score exists, though I have no memory of it; the cuts are predictable; etc. The film feels somehow small in a ghostly way, as if it has been on its way to TV screens a decade ago and gotten lost along the way. The small cast does what it can. Ferrell’s amiable enough but a wrong fit for the role, and Hall is, again, good in a role that will likely be overlooked. But there’s no spark of creation, no drive to tell a story, and that falls on the shoulders of Rush. He’s not a stupid filmmaker, just a scared one. Until he becomes willing to take a chance — to say something — he’ll never succeed. That’s the program.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.