Saturday, June 11, 2022

"Everything, Everywhere, All at Once": review

Michelle Yeoh in the universe where humans have hot-dog fingers

[WARNING: some spoilers.]

Written and directed by "the Daniels" (Scheinert and Kwan), the same team that gave us the hilariously ridiculous "Swiss Army Man," "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once" is a surreal, absurd 2022 multiverse adventure starring Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, and James Hong (who seems determined to outlive Clint Eastwood; as of this writing, Eastwood is 92, and Hong is 93). The movie is given to us in three distinct acts of varying lengths; Act I is "Everything"; Act II is "Everywhere," and Act III is "All at Once."

Evelyn Wang (pronounce it something like "wong," rhyming with "song"—it means "king") is the co-owner of a struggling laundromat along with her husband Waymond (Quan). Evelyn (Yeoh) is buried under a mound of tax paperwork. Her overbearing father Gong Gong (Hong) has arrived from China, and meanwhile, her lesbian daughter Joy (Hsu) is giving her stress. Evelyn still has trouble accepting the idea that her daughter is a lesbian; she worries that her father Gong Gong will take an even dimmer view of the situation than she does. On top of this, Waymond wants to talk with Evelyn about divorcing. Evelyn is working on her taxes because the IRS is auditing her business, and the irascible auditor working her case (Curtis) has many uncomfortable questions for the family.

Joy/Jobu Tupaki wearing her bagel symbol

During an elevator ride just before an audit interview inside the local IRS building, Evelyn's husband suddenly begins acting as if he's a completely different person from the Waymond she knows. This seemingly new Waymond urgently tells Evelyn that he has been jumping universes to find the "right" Evelyn to help him save the multiverse from a dark power that seems to be out to destroy it—a power that calls itself Jobu Tupaki. This Waymond, much more assertive than Evelyn's normal Waymond, proves capable of fighting like Jackie Chan—something he needs Evelyn to learn as well. Through various quickly delivered exposition dumps, "Alpha Waymond," who hails from the "Alphaverse," where "his" Evelyn is dead, explains that he wants Evelyn to learn all the skills she'll require to face Jobu Tupaki... who turns out to be none other than Evelyn's sullen, resentful daughter Joy. At first, Evelyn can't believe her daughter is a multiverse-destroying monster, but she soon comes to realize that Jobu Tupaki isn't possessing Joy; she is Joy, so somehow, this whole mess is Evelyn's fault since she's the mother of the monster.

While the setup is pretty wild, when you zoom back and follow just the movie's basic outline, this is ostensibly a story about preventing chaos and restoring order, in the vein of most heroic-adventure stories. But in its details, this movie is radically different from almost every other adventure story you might know. It involves martial arts (Evelyn learns how to occupy the consciousness of her alternate selves, absorbing their skills and memories, and there are universes in which Evelyn has trained as a martial artist), universe-jumping, people who suddenly become other people in an instant, and perhaps most important, family dysfunction as Evelyn must deal with multiple versions of her father and her daughter along with Waymond. One of the key riddles in the story is Jobu Tupaki's motivation for creating an existence-sucking bagel (it is, appropriately, an "everything bagel" that acts like a toroidal black hole... with garlic/sesame/onion sprinkles) that will ultimately absorb all universes into itself. Another riddle, just as important, is why Jobu Tupaki wants to find a particular Evelyn as badly as Waymond does.

Waymond ultimately reveals to Evelyn that she is, among the infinite Evelyns out there, the one who has done the most to shut herself off from a fulfilling life. Every time some opportunity presented itself for her to become a brilliant chef, a famous singer, a master martial artist, an accomplished actress, or anything else, Evelyn deliberately kept herself from following that path. This, according to Waymond, is what makes her so special: she might be an older woman, but she is full of unexplored potential. As to why Jobu Tupaki seems so intent on hunting this particular Evelyn down... well, that's best left unspoiled, but it has great bearing on the movie's ending.

I'm torn as to how to feel about this movie. On one hand, I can see why so many critics have been wowed by it: it really is an imaginative take that can't be pigeonholed within a single genre. It deals with heady themes of existence, nihilism (the phrase "Nothing matters" appears at least twice, and it means opposite things depending on the context), motherhood, daughterhood, wasted potential, the value of ordinariness, and the warmth of familial bonds. On the other hand, the movie is so frenetic as to be, well, fatiguing for these old eyes. It also adds to the amount of information we have to process when the dialogue constantly switches back and forth between English and Chinese, often in mid-sentence. I also don't think the movie does a very good job of making sense with its metaphysics, but that's a problem inherent in any narrative that includes a multiverse. Then again, the movie is smart enough to address the questions of sense and meaning: why would anything matter when you realize you're just the tiniest, most insignificant fragment of a frothingly plural and forever fracturing reality? I think that, ultimately, the viewer isn't supposed to make logical sense of the scenario depicted in this story; the idea, rather, is to follow the emotional beats, which are quite clear. In the end, we discover, saving the universe means making a change inside oneself; it has nothing to do with martial skills or anything external. So as confusing as the movie might be in its swirl of details, it is, on the emotional level, easy enough to understand.

Whether the Daniels knew it or not, they incorporated a lot of Chinese philosophy and culture into their story (I'm betting they knew). Most interesting to me was the revelation that Evelyn's untapped potential could be the source of her power: this is a direct reference to the Taoist metaphor of the Uncarved Block. In Taoism, the uncarved block (of wood or stone) hasn't been rendered into anything specific yet, and this is precisely what gives it its value. Taoism finds value in uncarved blocks, in empty spaces that have yet to be filled, and in things that most people would find useless. Also Taoist is the notion that Evelyn, to master her radical circumstances, must learn to let go of firmness and go with the flow of events, to swim with the current and to accept things as they happen. While I don't want to talk specifically about how the movie ends, there is, once again, a Taoist sense of ordinariness that closes the film. As for Chinese culture, well, the Confucian sense of family—especially as it clashes with American values—definitely shines through. And with so much of the movie being done in the style of a kung-fu actioner, I guess we could call that visual idiom Chinese as well. (I wondered at first whether Jackie Chan might have had a hand in the fight choreography, but as the film went on, it was obviously not Chan's style at all. Chan was apparently considered for an acting role in the film, though. Had he become part of the cast, I have no doubt he'd have had a say in the fight choreography. Talk about an alternate universe!) 

third eye

I'll also note that the movie contains at least two huge religious-studies dog whistles: first is when a character mentions the idea that there's something wrong and unsatisfactory with the world one is living in. "The Matrix" has a similar moment when Morpheus delivers his "like a splinter in your mind" speech, but the case is made, in this movie, just as baldly to Evelyn. Students of religious studies will tell you that most religions are sourced in some sort of dissatisfaction about the world: maybe we feel that this reality isn't the "realest" or "best" reality, or maybe we sense our own ignorance about fundamental truths. One way or another, we are given to believe, often through hints and vague insights, that there's more to the story than what we're seeing and experiencing. This is what starts many of us down the path of religious belief and praxis. The second dog whistle comes in the form of third-eye imagery, often associated with Hinduism and Buddhism: this is the darshan eye on the forehead that represents enlightened consciousness, and Evelyn sports a silly-yet-serious version of this eye when she has reached a point where, like Joy/Jobu, she can see across all universes to behold the humbling magnificence of existence. But for Evelyn, this vision brings with it affirmation, not nihilism. Far from being daunted by her own insignificance in the face of ultimate reality, Evelyn gains the wisdom to ground herself.

As a dose of multiversal metaphysics, I think "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once" is an unsalvageable mess that falls apart upon closer examination. A lot of it just doesn't make logical sense. But as a vehicle for certain aspects of Chinese philosophy, and as an imaginative study of how a broken family can eventually mend itself, the movie has merit—to the point of being touching. I found myself thinking back on my often-troubled relationship with my own mother as I watched Evelyn and Joy circle each other—now angry, now sad, now accusing, now forgiving. There are even elements of Christian morality sprinkled throughout the plot, for in the end, love conquers all.

Michelle Yeoh has the difficult task of carrying this film, and while I've seen her in enough other movies ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Crazy Rich Asians") to know she's not merely a good martial artist but a fine actress, she really puts effort into this role, which requires a lot from her in terms of comic delivery, fight choreography, and dramatic acting. The same could be said for Ke Huy Quan* and Stephanie Hsu, both of whom also have demanding roles. I have to give special credit to Jamie Lee Curtis, long a sex symbol, who appears in this film as an ugly, flabby, awkwardly shambling ogre for much of the run time. Curtis had to be a pretty good sport to allow herself to appear in such an unflattering state; I'll take that as a sign of her commitment to and belief in the project. The Daniels are also to be credited with a roller-coaster of a story that, while sloppy in how it explores the multiverse, nevertheless finds new ways to approach what is rapidly becoming a stale subject.

Joy, Waymond, Evelyn, and Gong Gong (click to enlarge)

I don't know if, up to now, I've addressed how funny the movie can be, but among the many genres it straddles, there's definitely comedy. Several fight scenes include butt-plug and veiny-dildo humor (partial explanation: jumping universes and acquiring new powers requires one to do... well, something improbable), and there's a hilarious running joke about how, in Evelyn's universe, a particular Pixar movie is called "Raccacoonie" instead of "Ratatouille" because the animal star is a large, talking raccoon who comically hides under a ridiculously tall toque and actually exists in at least one alternate universe.

So parts of the movie had me laughing out loud, and some parts nearly had me in tears. As I've already said, the film offers a clear emotional path for the viewer to follow; you feel your way through the story instead of thinking your way through it. I'm probably going to have to watch the movie again to see if I can make more sense of the plot, but it's already a good sign that I'm thinking of seeing the movie again. If you're jaded about movies and looking for something new, you could do far worse than "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once."

One major plot hole, though: we don't find out what becomes of the reality-sucking bagel.


*If that name sounds familiar, it's because he played little Short Round in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" as well as Data in "The Goonies." He did only one other work before dropping out of acting to become a stunt coordinator; he then returned to act—decades later—in this film. Quan is American and speaks Chinese; he was born in Saigon to ethnically Chinese parents. He's also pretty spry, as a martial artist, for a fifty-year-old.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

I learn so much more than about the movie in this review. I'm going to have to get my Google on now and see if Taoism or the multiverse can answer some recurring questions in my life.