Everything Must Go is a modest drama that reflects much of the unease of our time.

Will Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a senior executive in Arizona who has just been fired for his latest bout of on-the-job alcoholism. Halsey’s wife, apparently having heard of his of his dismissal, has changed the locks on their home and thrown all of his possessions out on to the front lawn. As if that situation were not challenging enough, Halsey’s wife has also blocked their bank accounts, leaving him essentially broke. Halsey must arrange a garage sale of his possessions within a matter of days or be arrested for vagrancy.

The movie is based on a short story by Raymond Carver entitled “Why Don’t You Dance?”  The film is also the feature length directorial debut of Dan Rush, who apparently has spent the last ten years directing television commercials.

When I first learned that Will Ferrell was the lead, I assumed Everything Must Go was a comedy, since I really only know Ferrell from  his work on Saturday Night Live. However, there isn’t much humor in the movie and Ferrell gives a convincing portrayal of an edgy, depressed man who hasn’t come to grips with the dark elements of his personality.  Halsey has a deep dependence on alcohol. Through much of the first half of the film, a beer can is as ubiquitous in Ferrell’s grip as a cigarette was in Dean Martin’s hand throughout the latter’s variety show.

It is interesting to see a comedic actor successfully take on a complex, dramatic role.  Bill Murray is another graduate of  SNL who has demonstrated a talent for non-comedic parts, and I do hope that Ferrell and Murray continue to expand their range beyond mere humor.

Everything Must Go has an interesting supporting cast. Laura Dern plays a long-lost girlfriend and Rebecca Hall is a pregnant neighbor with an absent husband. Christopher Jordan Wallace is an initially taunting teenager who ultimately helps Halsey sell his possessions, while Michael Pena is a police detective and dubious friend.  Although his plight is very public,  Halsey refuses to accept that his situation is really all that different from his neighbors’.  At one point he makes a statement  to Hall that could best be summarized by quoting the following passage from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

“A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

The film does have some improbable plot elements. Although Halsey’s wife changed the locks on the doors, she doesn’t  appear to be in the home. Why didn’t Halsey merely break open one of the entrances and move all of his belongings back into his house?  Better yet, since he probably had title to the home, why didn’t he simply call a locksmith and  have the locks removed?  The film deals with the larger issue of dispossesion, and perhaps some elements of the plot were not meant to be taken too literally. The image of having  all of one’s goods thrown out of a house is a powerful image of displacement, and far be it for me to stomp on someone else’s symbolism.  In an indirect way, the film also speaks to the country’s foreclosure crisis.

While watching the film, I was repeatedly reminded of the media coverage of former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, another man who fell from a very comfortable perch because of an alleged personal transgression. Everything Must Go isn’t exactly a feel-good movie, but it speaks to the economic uncertainty of our time, which is only exacerbated when internal demons prevent a person from holding on to the nearest lifeboat.