A teacher of mine named Leo Rockas had a brilliant way of characterizing Chekhov: The author, he said, began by writing conventional narratives with twist endings and then, over time, lopped off the beginnings and twists, leaving only the suggestive essence—the model for the modern short story. Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” is Chekhovian in that way. A middle-aged husband is cast out, forced to move his belongings and furniture (including his comfy easy chair) to his lawn, where he sits getting blotto—until a young couple invades his new world, mistaking it for a yard sale. You could give the story to five filmmakers and get five unalike features. Dan Rush’s is called Everything Must Go and is, perhaps inevitably, a dilution. It’s also missing Carver’s stunning climax, the drunken dance between the middle-aged man and the young wife. But the movie is very fine. That lawn with its scraps of a ruined life is a setting both satirical and poignant, and Will Ferrell gives a performance of Chekhovian depth.
I’d say Ferrell’s work is a revelation, except it isn’t. Even in slapstick comedies like Step Brothers, he shows a delicate touch, his child-men holding onto a defensive arrogance that barely conceals their helplessness. As Nick Halsey in Everything Must Go, he goes to the far side of that arrogance. Having lost his sales job and home, Nick has no more illusions to which to cling—only booze and an easy chair, neither of which can hold off reality for long. Yet a glimmer in his eyes suggests he recognizes the splendid absurdity of a yard sale, which represents both hopelessness (giving up his old life) and hope (giving up his old life).
Rush can be gentle to the point of non-intervention, yet he finds a balance between nihilism and faith that should be the envy of more experienced filmmakers. A subplot involving a chubby kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace—Biggie Smalls’s son!) whom Nick teaches the art of salesmanship is expertly undersold, Rebecca Hall gives Nick’s pregnant new neighbor layers of neediness and nervousness, and Laura Dern is unspeakably moving as a high-school classmate whom Nick seeks out after rereading a note in his yearbook. The end is wide open, neither sentimental nor bitter, perhaps less Carverian than Chekhovian, but perhaps, too, the better for it.