Friday, May 13, 2011

Making a short story long

Some short stories should be allowed to remain on the page.
Raymond Carver's short story -- Why Don't You Dance? -- can be read in five minutes, presuming you drag your feet. In a terse, deadpan style that allows the reader to fill in a variety of blanks, Carver introduces us to a man who has hit bottom.

Here's Carver's first sentence: "In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard."

Obviously, the main character in Carver's story is not having a good day. Not only the bedroom suite but just about everything else he owns is sitting on the lawn. The man seems to be alone; his wife may have vacated the premises to avoid her husband's rage and drinking. Or maybe she'd had enough, and simply didn't want to talk about their relationship anymore. Once a guy's stuff hits the lawn, there's not much left to talk about anyway.

Everything Must Go -- the movie derived from Why Don't You Dance? -- allows writer/director Dan Rush to fill in details that Carver purposefully omitted. Try as he may, Rush can't quite stretch Carver's minimal tale into a full-blooded movie.

In the movie, we meet Nick (Will Ferrell) in the midst of the mother of bad days. He's been fired from his job, and his wife has tossed all his stuff onto the front lawn. The neighbors are curious or vexed. Passersby take the scene for a garage sale.

Bolstered by a nonstop stream of beers, Nick settles down to contemplate his fate or maybe to avoid contemplating his fate. Rush does a good job setting up Nick's modest catastrophe, allowing the humor of despair to rise from the narrative like foul vapors from a dump.

I like despair as much as the next guy, but as soon as Nick is awakened from a night's sleep on the lawn by the automatic sprinkler system, an alarm went off my head. Too easy, I thought. Too expected. Too much like a gag you'd see in a very different kind of Will Ferrell movie.

Now in fairness, it should be noted that we're not talking about a movie that spends the next 100 minutes staring at a guy on his lawn. Not exactly. Nick has what are known in the trade as encounters: first with Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a portly black kid who Nick pays to watch his stuff while he replenishes his beer supply, and then with Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant woman who just has moved into the neighborhood and is awaiting her husband's arrival. Nick also discusses his situation with a detective (Michael Pena), who also happens to be his AA sponsor.

At a desperate low point, Nick visits a woman (Laura Dern) he hasn't seen in years. Kenny notices Nick's high school yearbook amid the debris on the lawn. Turns out Dern's character wrote something nice about Nick. Maybe she has an encouraging word for him. Clearly, Nick is grasping at straws.

Nick's relationship with Kenny has touching aspects, and Ferrell is quite good as a depressed man who has allowed alcohol to get the better of him. But there's at least one scene that calls for Nick to express his anger at someone. Samantha draws this particular short straw. Ferrell is much more than a comic buffoon, but a drunk with a venomous side? I didn't totally buy it. I didn't see enough mean in him.

Everything Must Go probably should have remained a short story, a writer's take on the kind of strange suburban sight we might see in real life, prompting us to wonder what series of events could have brought a man to the point where he's sitting in a recliner on his front lawn surrounded by all his crap and not having a clue what comes next.

I guess that's where I part company with the movie. I'd rather imagine what might have happened than to know what did: Filling in the blanks in Carver's story may amount to a case of subtraction by addition.

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