Monday, October 18, 2010

Secret Screening: Everything Must Go (Philadephia Film Festival)

As the credits roll at the end of Dan Rush's "Everything Must Go," there's a frankly embarrassing mistake made that should be corrected before this film goes into wide release. That's mistaking the main character's last name, which is Halsey, for Porter. When the character's name is displayed as prominently as it is in this film, it's kind of inexcusable. The reason that this is most important, though, is that it shows up a big problem with the film: we as the audience know the main character better than the crew of the film does.

We know Nick Halsey (Will Farrell) well enough to know that his backstory (shown in his recounting of the moment he relapsed) doesn't really fit with him. He would not do these things. They're too... alien. It's not really one of those situations in which the character does something shocking and we have our entire perception of them changed. No, this is simply a matter of the director really not getting the character, not knowing how to portray them and what to associate with them.

Halsey is an extremely intense alcoholic (which is not much of a surprise considering that this is based on a Raymond Carver story). In the film's opening stages, we follow him as his job, wife, and company car leave him, and as he returns home to find the fixtures of his house (that's no longer his, by the way) strewn across his lawn like flotsam. This is shown with a refreshing change in technique: a lack of narrative breaks, meaning that time elapses closer to the way it actually does in reality. The film would have been altogether more piercing if it had kept this throughout, but instead it completely abandons this idea about an hour in and makes absolutely no chronological sense afterwards (does someone wake up in the morning twice in the same day?). The film's choice to switch to a more conventional method of time perhaps frees the film from being overly somber (and makes it more enjoyable), but an interesting idea is indeed scrapped. (Note: even if it had kept that sort of focus, it still would not compare to this immensely powerful video for "Crystal Ball" by Keane, which parallels a lot of what happens, albeit not for the same reasons). And, by the way, these problems with realism are the director's own mistakes, not to be construed as Paul-Thomas-Anderson-esque attempts to tackle the problem of the main character.

Anyways, Halsey takes up residence on his lawn (as he doesn't want to break into the house) in an easy chair and draws some unpleasant feedback: it's illegal. His detective friend and apparent former alcohol advisor (played by Michael Pena in a lousy performance that makes you wonder why this guy keeps getting cast) covers his ass by calling his excursion on the lawn a "lawn sale" and suggesting that he sell most of his stuff to get back on his feet. Halsey is at first resistant, but he decides to go through with it.

He hires a kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) whose life consists of riding his bike around the block to help him out with watching and making signs for the stuff. The kid, oddly named Kenny Loftus (bizarre reference to the former MLB player?), wants to learn to play baseball (like all kids in this type of movie want to do). (Halsey agrees. They don't get really that far, though.) They form a business partnership that has a lot of sharing of those business tips like "Rule #1" and "Rule #18." This is a film cliche that's beyond tired out, and although Jordan Wallace makes it bearable, I wish Rush had resisted the temptation to use it.

He similarly fails to resist the temptations to include S&M and "Yo Momma" jokes, and to leave nice setpieces unexplained. He also sets a lot of the film to one of those overused "losing control" scores; you know what I'm talking about. The man follows indie cliches as prodigiously as the characters in the film follow the "Sales Bible." I must admit, though, that although the direction in this film is not impeccable, it does something right, as the film is undeniably enjoyable. On these grounds, I had a good enough time to recommend it. One, however, would not get much out of the film, as it is mostly not that inventive.

I think Will Farrell does a solid job, although I'm not sure if he's really the best choice for the main character. He's decent and works pretty well, but someone else might have fit better in. (Someone who may have made the backstory seem a little more plausible, perhaps?) It's not really a landmark in his career. I like his work in Marc Forster's insanely underrated "Stranger Than Fiction" better.

As far as the other performances go, they're for the most part below average, ranging from Rebecca Hall (who is not convincing at making "photography teacher" seem anything more than just a label), to Pena, to Glenn Howerton (startlingly bad and way overracted as Halsey's boss), to Stephen Root (poorly used and a long, long way from "Office Space"). Christopher Jordan Wallace is solid in supporting Farrell, but he himself cannot fully transcend the mold of the Indie Kid (much like Mia Wasikowska in "That Evening Sun"). And, as I learned with Wasikowska after her very good turn in "The Kids Are All Right," to paraphrase one of my commenters, it's the part, not the actor. (To tell you the truth, the character in that other film was much worse; Jordan Wallace's role is actually not too bad and he does it well.) Oddly enough, we also have Laura Dern in the film as a high school friend of Halsey's who he chases down after she wrote a nice thing in his yearbook. Her scene does some bizarre things, painting Halsey first as a loser, then dramatically overplaying him as the hero who made a nice gesture in high school. It's a weird (though nicely awkward) component that goes away as fast as it came.

This film was adapted from a story called "Why Don't You Dance?" by Ray Carver. Apparently it's a pretty loose retelling (a friend of mine notes that only the setting of the lawn is reprised from the original). It has some of the feel of a Carver story in its opening and it uses some Carveresque techniques like keeping the wife entirely out of the film, but, according to the friend who's read the story, this is not Carver.

The film has little value other than as an entertainment. There are no great performances (Farrell does nothing Oscar-worthy, if you were wondering) and there is no talented filmmaking (Rush is not a huge discovery, at least at the moment). However, it is diverting and I'm glad I saw it. You may have fun, taking pleasure in what's good (it's funny sometimes) and what's bad (when not taken seriously, Pena and Howerton are kind of a scream). C+

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