Monday, April 25, 2022

In the multiverse of sadness


Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Spoilers: moderate, though if you're from a universe where obvious things aren't obvious, it's high

There is one very little problem, as a film, with Everything Everywhere All At Once: upon the revelation of its reality-breaking premise to its heroine, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), Evelyn underreacts, and Yeoh underacts, to a somewhat distracting degree, attempting to carry on normally while some seriously weird shit happens that would suggest, to you or I, that we were having a psychotic episode.  I don't know if this was an attempt at subdued naturalism, completely out of step with the rest of the filmhey, frequently, people do just underreact to extremely out-of-the-ordinary situationsthough my suspicion is that it was determined by writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to be the most efficient path between the "sadsack melodrama" and "overheated sci-fi philosophical opera" phases of their screenplay, and, in a film filled to bursting with ideas even at 139 minutes, they still had miles to go before they slept.

That I'm satisfied describing such a miniscule quibble as the one problem indicates how few things actually go wrong with Everything Everywhere, so that the other "problem," such as it is, is entirely extrinsic to the film itself, and has more to do with the dozen years between Kwan & Scheinert's initial inspiration and the film's release in the April of 2022.  During that interval (and as you certainly already know), pop culture came to erode the novelty of the concept at the heart of that inspirationa journey through the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics, i.e. a multiverse, a concept so rarely exploited in film and TV circa 2010 that I can only think of a few things even remotely like it at that point in time, though the few things it is like, it is very akin to.  (Speaking with crude reductionism, but not for that reason inaccurately, it's The Matrix meets Carrie meets The Onewhich means I just got myself Lindsay Ellis Cancelled, because only a terrible racist could ever possibly find a resemblance between a Michelle Yeoh movie and a Jet Li movie.  In any case, those touchstonesand I smile realizing that someone else thinks of The One as "a touchstone"are only Kwan & Scheinert's starting points.)  Of course, here in 2022, there are now a lot of things like Everything Everywhere, not least Rick & Mortyand with similarities that actually do go further than skin deep, Kwan & Scheinert were worried enough about ripping the show off that they quit watching, which has doubtless enriched their livesthough obviously the elephant in the room is superhero multiverses and the mutation of the old comic book trope inside the genre's new cinematic host, so that presently multiplexes are just lousy with multiverses, and are primed to become lousier still.

The upshot is Everything Everywhere is perhaps less original than it could have been.  (The benefit, however, might be that the mainstreaming of this kind of weirdness via digestible nostalgia nuggets for the easily-pleased has been a factor permitting Everything Everywhere's qualified box office success.)  It was never going to be genuinely original; as noted, the concept has been explored outside of cinema for decades, almost exhaustively so, and there is not quite the same sensation of "how did they get this funded?" novelty that animated Kwan & Scheinert's previous feature together, Swiss Army Man, about the superpowers manifested by a decaying corpse inside another man's warped dreamworld.  But then, Swiss Army Man's novelty was its major achievement, not its sole achievement by any means, but its biggest one, and so it's probably a good thing, overall, that the primary takeaway from Everything Everywhere is not "this certainly was an experimental comedy."

But only barely (it very much still is "an experimental comedy"), and only because it's so incredibly good at everything else it does: the real story is how Everything Everywhere makes every other piece of recent media that's attempted to make something epic of their multiverses look like shit.  It's Rick and Morty if Rick and Morty were, in the first place, just better and more disciplined, and furthermore actually capable of accepting that it's said all it has to say and finishing already, rather than degenerating zombie Simpsons-style into a increasingly-unfunny gag cartoon; whereas comparing it to either of the Spider-centric multiverseseven Spider-Verse, which is monumental aesthetically but only functional narrativelywould just be demeaning to all involved.  If we set it against the MCU material, anyway, we would wind up wasting our time praising Everything Everywhere for performing the most basic tasks of its subgenre correctly, for example having the same actors play different multiversal versions of their characters, who go on to compare their lives in meaningful and intelligible ways.  (Meanwhile, Marvel doesn't even account for the only recent Disney properties that it makes look bad.)

And here I am, having barely touched on the film itself.  The story is actually fairly straightforward: Evelyn is an immigrant to the United States, her lot in life having been determined when she went against her father (James Hong) to marry her sweetheart Waymond Wang (the great child actor, Ke Huy Quan, of Temple of Doom, Goonies, and almost nothing else till now, though he's had a respectable behind-the-camera career).  Evelyn's lot, anyway, turned out to be grindingly mediocre and grimly stereotypical, with the Wangs running a crappy laundromat business and raising their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who has, sometime in the past couple of years, both dropped out of college and come out as a lesbian, each fact being roughly equal in its capacity to disappoint Evelyn.  All the while, Waymond's happy-faced blitheness has worn extremely thin for Evelyn, and whatever charm she must at one point have perceived in his playful personality has vanished for her.  Presently, she's faced with two twin crises: the first being a stateside visit from her father, whom she defied once and, it seems, never again; even more critically, she's being audited by a seemingly mean-spirited IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), whom Evelyn claims must have it out for her, though the truth is Evelyn cheats like mad on her taxes.  By accidental revelation, it even becomes a triple crisis, when she happens across the divorce papers Waymond has been waiting to give her.  So our heroine is a tax evading bigot, who is unimaginably miserableor, perhaps more aptly, her misery is great but all-too-easily imaginedand while she takes that misery out on other people, her life is only set to get even worse.

Into the midst of her meeting with the IRS, however, arrives another Waymond, overriding her husband's consciousness from another universe.  He's here seeking the Evelyn that may be (I forget) referred to explicitly as "the one," that is, the version of herself "closest" in quantum mechanical terms to every other Evelyn in the multiverse, and therefore best able to use the technology that his Evelyn, now deceased, invented years ago to access the minds and memories of other quantum versions of herself.  He enlists Evelyn in a desperate bid to turn around a multiversal war that has currently reached its decisive stage, against the shadowy being that killed his Evelyn and managed to access a certain brand of omnipotence by learning how to manifest the infinite possibilities of the multiverse into any chosen reality.  And Evelyn takes on this challenge, rather reluctantly, when the agents of this entity arrive to remove the potential threat she represents.

The identity of this creature, the Jobu Tupaki, is very easily guessedso easily that Kwan & Scheinert don't actually hide it for very long.  Then again, I did, personally, guess wrong: I thought the Jobu Tupaki would be the "Alpha Universe's" scientist Evelyn.  But it's not Evelyn, and that leaves Joy, so on one level what Everything Everywhere turns out to be is a metaphor for generational conflict and generational trauma in immigrant (or conservative, or any) families.  This is its dullest level, and it still does it better than any other adventure film-friendly generational metaphor I've seen lately, coming at sociological concepts like sociological concepts are not the only things characters and narratives and humans require to thrive, something we used to take for granted and is today a tiny movie miracle.

Instead it takes the existence of its multiverse very seriously, after its fashion (and we'll get there), and builds its story on that basis, grappling hard with the depressive nihilism at the core of its philosophy, and its insight that a world of endless possibilities is even more drearily fatalistic than a deterministic universe where there's only one, and you can square free will with the notion that if it's determined, at least it's your will that determined it.  Evelyn could perhaps find some comfort in the latter idea, with her personality hollowed out by what looks like a good decade of uninterrupted languishpreceded by a few more decades' worth of hope eroding with agebut now she's confronted with the fact that the key decision of her life not only actually did ruin it, but she didn't even choose it: the worst version of herself is only the obligatory outcome of physical law.  She occupies the bodies and minds of all the countless Evelyns who've lived better, and I love the implication that it is our Evelyn who makes their existence possible, suffering on behalf of an infinity of Evelyns who were lucky not to be her.  JoyJobu Tupaki, anywayis simply further along, having processed the meaninglessness of this multifaceted existence where nothing matters, an ascended god who has discovered that when you can do anything and know everything, all that's left afterward is unbearable boredom and encroaching madness.

It is, also, a very hilarious comedy, and Kwan & Scheinert, in this random adventure across existence, stumble across all sorts of the most terrifically funny silliness; there's a lot going on and a lot of influences smashed together, but despite constantly spinning off into its own idiosyncrasies, fundamentally Everything Everywhere comes off like the single most successful run there's ever been at capturing the spirit of Douglas Adams onscreen.  Structured as a running battle against Evil Joy (well, it's a "running battle" cosmically-speaking; somehow, this multiverse-embracing epic is also a movie with only two main locations, the IRS building and the Wangs' laundry), Evelyn must borrow the skills of her multiversal counterparts to survive her alternate-daughter's onslaught.  The most useful skill, naturally, is the kung fu of the world-famous actress/stuntwoman Evelyn became in the "best" of the nearby universes.  Yet in many cases the alternate-version skills that Evelyn has at hand are the more esoteric talents, e.g. "showboating teppanyaki chef," demanding imagination and improvisation if they're going to get her out of any given scrape, and altogether this means that Kwan & Scheinert are allowed to go wild with their action choreography  (Evelyn's access to her counterparts is also determined by a fun little mechanic that requires her to perform a "statistically improbable act," and that's another major driver of the humor.)

A lot of it feels, in the best way, like stuff that has indeed been accreting since the early 2010s, and there's a delirious quality to it, filled with random shocks and superbly creative (and delightfully immature) gross-out imagery; much more than the mere soon-revealed identity of its villain, I feel like mentioning the existence of a universe where there are hot dog hands, complete with a 2001 reference that buttons this gag by actually explaining the evolution of hot dog hands in primates, would represent the true spoiler. I am astonished this approach has a success rate as high as it does, but Kwan & Scheinert already established a mastery of visual and conceptual anarchy with Swiss Army Man, and surely double down on that talent here.  This exceeds it in many regards, and that was already a pretty high bar, I think because of how clearly that titleeverything, everywhwere, all at onceserved as a mission statement for the duo, shoveling ideas and tones at you with such overwhelming speed that your defenses and objections are likely to collapse sooner rather than later, allowing the film to make horrifyingly radical shifts in feeling from scene to scene or even line to line, frequently occupying two or three registers in the exact same space at the exact same time (like a superposition, ha ha ha).  And I don't know if I made it clear how much the family drama and the existentialist drama actually works, like a very funny vivisection of three human souls, where I spent a shockingly long stretch of the film laughing and crying simultaneously.  It seems impossible but it's the truth: the funniest and most sublime shot in the whole film is a pair of fucking rocks.

Which is not to derogate the non-rock performers, and of course this is Yeoh's movieit was very obviously at least partly constructed with her in mind, and, surprisingly, she seems to have been the one actor who was actively courted.  (I would've guessed both its leads were, but apparently Quan's return to acting was beautiful serendipity.)  Yeoh has long since proven the model-performer-stuntwoman she started out as is also a very good actor, but I don't know, and I would be somewhat astounded, if this is not her best performance, from the basic dialect work (Yeoh's basically a native English speaker; Evelyn is not) to the histrionics of a film that, if it must have two possible problems, seeks to sustain an emotionally-pulverizing climax across what I think must be fifteen full minutes of screentime.  (It's Goddamned exhausting, but it literally concerns infinite Earths and the most important people on them: I would not shorten it by a moment.)

I would be surprised, honestly, if Yeoh herself didn't think it was the best performance of her careerI've seen Yeoh start crying in an interview as she attempted to explain the valedictory import of it, recapturing the high-flying and wire-borne glory days of her youth in the gloom of late middle age, counterpoising loser Evelyn with a multiversal counterpart who is, basically, Michelle Yeoh, except also the Michelle Yeoh who (thanks to one of the more intriguing and committed formal gambits Kwan & Scheinert go for) got to be in Wong Kar-Wai movies, particularly the Wong Kar-Wai movie.  Whilst on the other end of things, the entire film feels like an artifact from the alternate universe where Ke Huy Quan was as big a star as Michelle Yeoh, and served as Michelle Yeoh's Maggie Cheung's Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, which is a magnificently generous gesture to Short-Round, and one that he rewards by making you believe it.  (It is a pity, I think, that Quan came to the project rather than the project coming to him: maybe it's for the best, but there's certainly meta left unmined in this respect.  Either way, I hope Spielberg is embarrassed for not realizing that the legacy of Indiana Jones never required brand new characters, and Quan was there all along.)

Yet for all that, the standoutdistinct from the best and most multi-valent performancemight be Stephanie Hsu.  I don't even know who this woman is, but there's an empty, broken quality to "Jobu Tupaki" that's pitch-perfect: an anchor dragging Joy down into a joylessness that never dissipates even at her most petulantly self-amused, and the constant sensation that the chaos she brings is desperate and flailing and doesn't come close to doing it for her anymore; Hsu's performance is just as important as Yeoh's when we arrive at our conclusion, where we are offered a certain solace in the face of this multiversal absurdity, that, even so, doesn't refute the darker thoughts that have dominated the film's philosophy, but simply asks we look at the facts from another point of view.

It's just a flattening piece of cinema, then, not only full of constant invention, but actually intelligent.  Even crazier, it's fun at being intelligent, propulsive in ways that movies that run 139 minutes have no right to be.  It's simultaneously a total movie-movie blast and a treatise on reality and a ZAZ-level slapstick comedy and a meta exploration of acting and an all-time-great melodrama perpetually ready to rip your heart out.  And, yes, it is indulgentbut indulgent in the most loveable and admirable ways, where it feels like filmmakers are holding absolutely nothing back.  I can't believe it cost $25 million; it's a minor point, but it looks like a film that cost four or five times as much as it actually did.  I can only hope in some juster universe it made a billion back.  I'm rarely on the hype train, but I'm ecstatic to be here this time.

Score: 10/10

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