There are two ways to judge Dan Rush's directorial debut Everything Must Go. You can look at the film itself and/or you can grade star Will Ferrell’s performance. To explain my rating I would give the actual film 4 stars while Ferrell’s performance earns a solid 5. Since they go hand in hand the average represents my rating: 4.5 stars.
The film follows Ferrell as a recovering alcoholic who relapses
after losing his job. He comes home to find that his wife has left him and
put all of his stuff on their front lawn prompting his decision to live on his yard. But local laws prohibit that (and some
neighbors don’t approve) so he is forced to turn the whole thing into a yard sale within
five days. If you can spot the metaphor between the things on the lawn
and his troubles congrats! You’ve cleared Metaphors 101. We’ll cover
similes next week. Anyway living on the lawn causes Ferrell to look
back and ponder over his life decisions. Helping him along the way is
newcomer Christopher Wallace (Biggie’s son) the precocious child that
helps teach him a lesson. Again a more overused cliche couldn’t be
found but it’s done right and Wallace is a joy to watch on screen.
Rebecca Hall as the pregnant neighbor who befriends Ferrell while he's camping on the lawn is a pleasant surprise as well holding her own against the star's incredible energy.
On Ferrell’s performance: It's by no means revolutionary for the craft of acting but is a breakout turn for the funny man. A more traditional dramatic actor could’ve lazily walked through the script and come out fine on the other end but Ferrell's portrayal is stark raw and real. You know the Will Ferrell scream? Imagine someone doing that not because it's funny but because it's their only means of expressing emotion. That’s what he does in this movie. He took the energy he employs in his comedies to reach new manic heights and channeled it into the darkest corners of the human psyche. The closest thing we can compare it to is Stranger Than Fiction since it's his only other dramatic role worthy of note (in that it's something most people know about and can compare to) but that film had a strong narrative hook that took care of all the whimsy so Ferrell could just be “normal.” Everything Must Go doesn’t have the benefit of that hook so Ferrell jumps headfirst into the pits of human emotion. I highly doubt it’ll garner him any award nominations but it was pleasing to see that he can actually act. And in hindsight it makes the crazy Ferrell that much funnier.
Onto the actual film: a fairly standard black comedy and that is by no means an insult. Standard can be good as long as it’s handled well and director Rush treads through the narrative carefully. The story jumps around a bit as the characters get the inspiration they need to move on to the next plot point awfully quickly but that affords cinematographer Michael Barrett more time to capture the beautiful South West landscape. Though there isn’t anything amazing about the film it is solid movie executed really well. A refreshing change of pace for Ferrell and a delightfully dark change of mood in the doldrums of the summer blockbuster.
Lucy (Ashley Judd) is a small town girl just getting by with her small-town job and small-town roommate. Relationships are forgettable to her mainly because she tries to sneak out before her lovers even wake up. But Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) wants more than a one night stand. He actually cares encourages her to stay for breakfast and maybe even have a conversation. This is all new for Lucy. Someone actually cares about her feelings? How could that be when she doesn’t even care about her own? It changes her approach to all her usual routines--her boss (Stacy Keach) her family and her church. But positive change has a hard time sticking and old habits threaten to ruin Lucy’s progress. That’s about as far as we can stretch this plot description. Really it’s just sleeping around trying to stay faithful and open and going about small-town life. It’s really slow or you could call it deliberate if you’re being kind--so you’d better love promiscuous drunks to spend 90 minutes with them. Judd gives her most powerful performance in decades since her debut performance in the indie film Ruby in Paradise. She may not be playing a suicidal cutter in Come Early Morning but she gets to show real emotional pain. She cries yes but what’s really going on with her self-esteem is much more subtle. An awesome supporting cast makes sure Lucy exists in a real inhabited world. Keach is an honorable boss who hopes against hope that maybe Lucy will pick up and follow him to bigger and better places but kind of resigned in the knowledge that people don’t leave their nest. Laura Prepon (TV’s That ‘70s Show) plays Lucy’s roommate as spunky as small- town folks get but never in an obnoxious way. Diane Ladd plays what may be Lucy’s future a bitter old woman taking crap from a sexist grump. These kinds of people really exist and these actors portray them as slightly complicated people considering the simple examples they are meant to serve in the film. Donovan sure makes Cal a lovable guy and you almost root for him to find someone more stable than Lucy yet he’s never a pushover just an honest good soul. Actor-turned-director Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) really loves the small-town setting so she lets the camera linger on loving establishing shots. It creates a believable world of folks in their routine. She cast perfect supporting players to beef up the star vehicle and really just lets them go. Some are familiar faces professional enough to tone down any personas they may have. Others are unknowns who bring more authentic color outside of Hollywood. The story gives them all quirks to show but a lot of it is just effective casting. There is nothing flashy about the style of Come Early Morning. It’s definitely an indie in the vibe of people sitting around talking but there are no extended diatribes á la Kevin Smith. Come Early Morning is focused on moving the characters’ emotional journeys forward. That’s exactly what Adams should be doing in serving this rural relationship drama. If given a subject with broader appeal or a killer hook Adams could surely have a long career behind the camera.