Everything Everywhere All at Once
It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “The End”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “Now this really pisses me off to no end”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.
I didn’t immediately realise this was from the Swiss Army Man writer-director duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the “Daniels”), but when I did, the glossy abrasiveness of style and content fell into place. Everything Everywhere All at Once flourishes itself as a kind of frat-house Cloud Atlas, judiciously grafting a theme of emotional uplift onto its multiverse concept while going for gross broke with dildoes, butt plugs and bondage gear. The juvenile shock-sensibility hearkens to the lowest ebbs of comedic “titans” the Wayan Brothers (Scary Movie), Adam Sandler (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Da Ali G Movie) – it’s also no surprise they’re fans of the aggressively unpleasant Rick and Morty – but fused to faux-expansive empathy and reconciliation, all set to swelling anthemic soundtrack drops and soaring, transcendent montages. Kevin Smith, Seth Rogen and Terence Malick perhaps shared a Skype consultation. It’s no surprise ADD auteur-wannabes the Russo brothers are producers, given their recent aberration Cherry.
Does exploration of a multiverse require almost two-and-a-half hours to get its point across? Sam Raimi didn’t think so, and his message was very nearly as trite as the one here. Which is, essentially, plugging the hole of whatever makes you sad with whatever makes you happy. The plot is sparked by the teen angst of Joy Wang, daughter of laundromat owner Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) – I say teen, but Stephanie Hsu is 31. Nevertheless, the essential goth-chic misery thing of “Nothing matters” has a certain adolescent thrall; “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos”.
Joy: If nothing matters then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away.
The Joy instigating matters is more accurately identified as Alpha Joy/Jobu Tupaki, from the verse-jumping Alpha Universe, who became disillusioned with existence as a result of the deceased Alpha Evelyn pushing her into verse-jumping to the extent that she experienced all universes at once and caught a severe case of the nihilistics. Oh, and because Kwan and Schweinert are so “ker-razee” and “whacky”, “I go bored one day and I put everything in a bagel”.
All this cosmic scurrying then, comes back to someone feeling “so ronery”, owing to the standard gamut of family trials and tribulations. Which means the solution is the rapprochement of the same; it turns out Jobu, despite giving off the vibe a kill-crazed mission to wipe out all Evelyns everywhere, was simply trying to connect: “I was looking for someone who can see what I see, feel what I feel”. And when Evelyn (“our” Evelyn, if you like) receives a dose of Jobu’s experience – her third, googly, eye opens – she too starts to get very negative. It’s only the positive embrace by “fam” – Evelyn’s husband Waymon, played by Je Huy Quan of Short Round fame, and also, ultimately, difficult dad Gong Gong (Hong) – that restores everything, so we “get back to how it’s supposed to be”. Evelyn duly taps everyone into whatever it is that makes them feel fulfilled (which, inevitably, tend to be ephemeral fixes, but there you go).
That said, the sentiments here don’t merit outright derision; they’re fair and valid, in their relative places. But there’s such an overblown, calculated cynicism to the whole deal, despite the best efforts of the actors involved, that I found Everything Everywhere All at Once mostly off-putting. Yeoh, who has been fine, varnished oak in a few things lately (absolutely dire in Star Trek: Discovery and not so great in Shang-Chi either, but likeable in Last Christmas), has been given a role(s) that allows her to shine, and she seizes the chance. The lead was originally conceived as male, it seems: “We were having trouble figuring out the casting for the father figure, and one of us started wondering what happens if we take Michelle’s character and flop it and she becomes the protagonist”. Yeah right, I’m sure it had absolutely nothing to do with securing financing per current Hollywood diktats.
Quan is the movie’s emotional centre, such that he can make a line like “The only thing I know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind” ring earnest and true and not precipitate an instant diabetic coma. Jamie Lee Curtis is kind of terrifying as a frumpy auditor. Hong is always great. I can’t say I was overly impressed by Hsu, but hers isn’t a role(s) that offers much in the way of variation (from vaguely pissed to super pissed).
There’s no doubt Kwan and Schenert can put a sequence together, edit a montage, choreograph a fight, curate fine cuts for the soundtrack, but I wasn’t won over by their crude/heartfelt style in Swiss Army Man, and I’m no more enamoured of it here. Although, in its favour Everything Everywhere All at Once is Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano free, which puts it ahead on points. Frankly, though, the hotdogs instead of fingers, Raccoonie (Ratatouille, obviously, but following Swiss Army Man, there’s a human puppetry theme developing here), fights with jumping pads stuck in antagonists’ arses, the (yes, I’ll say it again) bloody rubber johnsons, and satisfying bondage guy’s peccadilloes confirmed my prior aversion. And that’s without the movie having an inverse appreciation of less is more, somehow believing that, if its message is extended past breaking point, it will be more effective.
A key philosophical treatise occurs when Evelyn and Joy, having jumped into the rock universe, debate the fact of “Small, stupid humans. It’s like our whole deal’. I was curious about this section. On the one hand, Everything Everywhere All at Once forwards the kind of shallow “fam” connection found in your typical Hollywood fare (F&F), along with a prefab lesson in progressive inclusivity (Joy has a girlfriend, whom Gong Gong must accept; in sausage-fingers world, Evelyn and Deirdre are in a relationship). On the other, this is an actual family, not your surrogate model Hollywood generally seems set on promoting, and everything about the movie is squarely rooted in the enduring importance of the generational connections between the same.
Rock Joy: For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise. That is, until we discovered that the Earth is actually revolving around the Sun, which is just one sun out of trillions of suns.
Additionally, the above dialogue would appear to validate the “We’re just meaningless, inconspicuous humans, we’re unimportant” that the NASA model of the universe is so keen on (plus, to think otherwise is what causes all the killing and maiming and the like, right?) On the other (hotdog-fingered) hand, Kwan and Scheinert have Joy explicitly stating that such thinking is designed break our sense of value and worth, and each new scientific “discovery” is essentially coordinated “to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit”. Could Waymond’s plea to “get back to how it’s supposed to be” relate to a timeline free from the hijacking by malign influences (in this case, Jobu Tupaki)?
So, by accident or design, I must give the Daniels that much credit. I wish I liked Everything Everywhere All at Once more, since Kwan and Scheinhert are evidently talented filmmakers (rather than simply capable copiers, like their producers the Russos). Unfortunately, they’re a little too gross for my “refined” tastes and also less than sophisticated in their gestures towards thematic depth. But I’m evidently in the minority, if we go by the movie’s RT score, the way it has blasted into IMDB’s Top 60, and a gross that puts in the global Top 20 for the year (on a very modest budget). I was going to say Everything Everywhere All at Once can also boast not being a sequel, but with the current cachet of the multiverse concept – the rise of which is inherently suspicious in itself – it might as well be.
First published by Now in Full Color on 20/05/22.