If you’re going to try to shoot a Raymond Carver story, have the good sense to give Rebecca Hall plenty of screen time. Dan Rush is smart enough to do that in Everything Must Go, and he’s also smart enough to not try to compose a coffee table book of the story, “Why Don’t You Dance?”. Even bolder, he chooses to riff off the dialogue – almost the entire story as written as dialogue – rather than use it verbatim. It’s his first movie, and it’s terrific, and much closer to Carver than Altman’s Short Cuts, which, alas, kind of is a coffee table book of a bunch of Carver stories.
Carver’s ok, though I find him a little sing-songy in his themes: alienation, check, inability to communicate, check, intimacy issues, check. English teachers tend to love him; he always feels a little arid to my taste. (For my cup of tea, see anything by A.L. Kennedy.) I admire Altman’s smorgasbord approach, which has some great moments, but his Carver movie is messy as hell. Rush’s is clean without being antiseptic, lively without feeling frenetic, and sad without that dreadful precious/wistful/Chekhov affectation that plagues so many American independent movies.
Much of that is due to Will Ferrell. The trailer, no doubt trying to rope in the Talladega Nights fans, plays him as a hapless boob, a slightly meaner version of Ferrell’s muddle-headed W impersonation. What I anticipated was Ferrell doing what all comedians do in their breakout straight roles (see Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, etc.), dialing it way back, and certainly not far from what Ferrell did in the very sweet Stranger than Fiction some years back. But he’s moved forward here. There’s no buffoonery, just bad timing and rotten luck, and Ferrell’s small, close-set eyes show a rage that his character is almost always too tired or too drunk to address or express. Clearly, the guy’s been champing for a role where he can act, and here, he’s got one.
It helps that Rush has chosen an outstanding cast in support. Rebecca Hall just seems to get more charismatic and wonderful with every role she plays; she’s one of those actresses like Ingrid Bergman or MM who seems to carry around her own personal inner glow. You just fall into her beautiful Italian-dark roast eyes and feel everything she feels. Laura Dern has a lovely quiet scene, and it’s nice to watch her in a good script for a change, not playing some shrill yuppie for Apatow or worse. (Short Cuts is ok Altman; Dr. T and the Women is dreadful Altman, and she’s unfortunately wasted in it.) Most remarkable is the steady, tranquil wonder who is Christopher Jordan Wallace, a young actor who plays Ferrell’s unlikely sidekick. Their onscreen rapport is rare and very sweet to watch, and the tutor/student exchange has great and quiet power; you get the feeling that the actors are also teaching the other everything they know about acting as they work.
DP Michael Barrett soaks the frames in Arizona light that still finds some tenderness as a shelter from the relentlessly sunny weather, and production designer Kara Lindstrom captures bland suburbia and its promise of anesthetized, painless life. David Torn’s evocative and spare score and Sandra Adair’s finely-tuned and sensitive editing create a fine balance and finish for this surprisingly substantial movie. It’s like a meal in a restaurant that is perfectly cooked, and where you’re served just enough, and where the conversation and atmosphere are just as important as whatever you eat.
And perhaps the highest praise is that I saw it on a date with my soon-to-be 15-year-old. He liked it, too.