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Everything Must Go: Simple and Subtle Comedy-Drama
Don’t go in expecting a goofy, happy Will Ferrell. This is him at his most drunken, sacked and dejected. After a recent alcoholic relapse, Nick (Ferrell) ends up without a job and abandoned by his wife, who has changed the house’s locks, frozen his access to their bank account, cancelled his mobile service and thrown all his stuff out onto the lawn. When his officer friend (Pena) stops by and finds that he categorically refuses to leave his lawn, he advises him to hold a yard sale so that he can turn a page in his life and pull himself together.
While Ferrell gives a surprisingly subtle, heartfelt performance, Nick doesn’t really struggle as much as a person in his position should. He adapts to living on the lawn quite easily and seems a bit too comfortable with his new living situation. Also, his addiction to alcohol, while being the reason behind all his problems, doesn’t really seem like much of a stigma. Nick spends most of his time on the lawn chugging beer after beer, and honestly he seems like the kind that can hold his liquor really well, as he has remarkably lucid conversations with his new neighbour Samantha (Hall).
Ferrell’s decision to play Nick as a lucid drunk as opposed to a bumbling lunatic definitely fits more with the film’s melancholy tone and gives it a sense of realism that the story rather lacks, yet it does make his wife’s actions seem over-the-top.
Samantha, who is pregnant, has relocated to Arizona along with her husband who intends to join her as soon as he can. Like Nick, Samantha’s husband also has problems with alcohol, which have led to his demotion at work. Nick sees the couple as a younger version of him and his wife. Through getting to know Samantha, he starts to feel sympathy for her and by extension, for his wife. He gains a healthy appreciation for what his alcohol abuse problems have put her through. Hall’s remarkably expressive face conveys her feelings of revulsion and sympathy for Nick that turn into a type of intimacy once they get to know each other better.
Nick’s improvement shows itself in his relationship with Kenny (Wallace), a smart young kid with too much time on his hands. Nick enlists Kenny’s help in making signs for the yard sale and in actually getting rid of the stuff. At first, Nick refuses to part with anything. However, as time passes and with Kenny’s help, he gladly sells most of his stuff, shedding his old life’s baggage in the form of his junk.
This is a simple, minimalistic film that is melancholic without being melodramatic. However, for a film showcasing such subtle, understated performances, it suffers from an overwrought ending. The whole letting go of his previous life metaphor conveyed in the yard sale arc is tied up with an ending that hammers this same point home, even more as if it wasn’t glaringly obvious the first time round.
She wakes up from her coma to a husband who she doesn’t remember and parents who are overjoyed that she’s forgotten about their dispute. While Paige’s parents try to bring her back to the way of life that she’d rebelled against, Leo tries to help her remember why she’d left all that behind in the first place. Fighting for a wife who doesn’t remember him and is a completely different person than the one he knew, Leo tries to get her to fall in love with him again.
The film rarely gets unbearably cheesy, setting it apart from your run of the mill Sparks adaptation. It gets mushy, emotional and sappy, but it’s more likely to make you smile than roll your eyes. Leo’s pain and heartbreak combined with Paige’s family’s delight at having their daughter back, gives the film a level of grit that keeps it from becoming overly cloying. However, the secret of the film’s success is the leads, who have great chemistry and manage to pass off some of the cheesiness as bearable.
Based on writer Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir, the ‘mostly true’ story of one Margaret Shepherd - an eccentric homeless woman who back in the mid-70’s decided to set up camp in Bennett’s North London driveway and stay there for fifteen years - is beautifully told in Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van; a humorous and touching tale of an unusual friendship brought to life by an engaging script and one deliciously weird and quirky performance by the forever-great Dame Maggie Smith.
Adapted to the screen by Bennett himself – his story was initially turned into a book back in 1989 before taking up stage in London’s West End in 1999 - The Lady in the Van begins by introducing Alan Bennett (Jennings); a witty, dry and a seemingly withdrawn playwright who has just moved in to his new home in Camden, London. Thanks to camera trickery, there are two versions of the writer to be witnessed here; one is Bennett the man – a shy and a reserved fellow who deals with the outside world – and Bennett the writer; someone who sits, writes and complains about the lack of intrigue and excitement in their somewhat boring and complicated co-existence.
Things take an interesting turn with the appearance of Miss. Shepherd (Smith); a strange, smelly and a particularly single-minded drifter who lives out of the back of a van. After not being able to park her van out on the street anymore, Miss. Shepherd – whose unconventional characteristics have already ignited an interest in the writer – turns to Bennett for help. Taking pity on the poor old lady, he soon agrees for her to temporarily use his driveway which, as it turns out, she stayed on for fifteen years.
It’s easy to recognise The Lady in the Van’s theatrical roots with the movie bearing a somewhat of an artificial and at times, a distractingly stagey feel. However, that should not pose as a problem with the magnificent Maggie Smith at play, whose performance is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive the film’s tiny drawbacks. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, Smith is absolutely superb as the wandering oldster whose mysterious past involving a hit-and-run – something that serves as the major subplot in the story – has led her to where she is today. Her interaction with Bennett – a pleasantly reliable Jennings - is where the story’s heart lies and it’s his never-ending curiosity about his particularly strange squatter that ends up slowly unravelling the mystery behind her suffering existence.
Staying clear of unnecessary melodrama and over-sentimentalising its subject, The Lady in the Van is all about Smith’s turn and, while its peculiar set up may not appeal to everyone’s taste, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being taken in by this 80 year old actress’ immense talent and her incredible ability of commanding the screen.