Vol. 44 No. 10 · 26 May 2022
At the Movies

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

Michael Wood

1160 words

DanielKwan and Daniel Scheinert, the writers and directors of Everything Everywhere All at Once, were worried, apparently, that Covid-related delays might result in their film arriving late for a party at which everyone was already talking about plural possible worlds. Recently it has felt almost impossible to go to the movies without having to engage with some multiverse or other, inhabited by Spider-Man, the Avengers or the Justice League. But there was no cause for worry. Most of these other works turned out to be resolutely binary – if it wasn’t here and now, it was there and then – while Kwan and Scheinert’s world is genuinely multifarious, and almost as chaotic as the title suggests.

The film has flaws. It feels long at times, in spite of the speed of its cuts from shot to shot, and there are moments when the directors seem to be playing video games rather than making a movie. But the combination of casual cleverness, terrible jokes and amazing acting is very attractive and has caught the attention of critics and the public. (The film has earned $48 million so far.) The basic question it poses is what happens when ordinary Chinese life in America, with all its tedious embarrassments, turns into a kung fu movie full of kicks and flying bodies. The short answer is nothing, but, as you might expect, that’s only one possibility. The embarrassments themselves are persistent and plausible, and at the centre of them is the wonderful Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, looking at first as if she’s never heard of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Tomorrow Never Dies. But how could she not remember, especially as her screen husband, Waymond, played by Ke Huy Kwan, likes to turn into a ninja warrior when he gets bored? She soon joins him in this and other worlds, while in her actual home she scarcely talks to him and he is asking for a divorce.

That’s one of the embarrassments. Others include a visit from Evelyn’s father (James Hong), for whom she wishes to perform the fiction of a happy family; a sulky gay daughter (Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu), who doesn’t understand the social advantages of being straight; and an evil tax officer (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is about to wreck Evelyn’s financial life. There is a perfect visual anticipation of all this in the opening shot of the Wangs’ apartment. We see a table piled with unsorted bills, clothes and household debris everywhere, no room to move around or sit, and Evelyn trying to appear busy and in control. Ordinary untidiness looks like paradise by comparison.

The film has been billed as a science-fiction comedy, but it doesn’t really belong to either genre, despite the abundance of fantasy and the fact that it’s often very funny. It’s more like a philosophical soap opera, where the human dilemmas become real because of (rather than in spite of) all the attempts to displace them. This effect marks a shift from what was apparently the directors’ original intention: to make Evelyn’s problem a so-called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This condition was to be active but undiagnosed. In the event there is just hyperactivity, an overloading of the calendar in historical and imagined worlds, and in this sense the film is an essay about elaborate systems of avoidance. Or about abandonment of hope, done with a light touch. Kwan has said that they wanted ‘to talk about nihilism’ without any eye-rolling, and when Joy tells Evelyn (both now launched into several alternative lives) that the infinite number of possible universes means that ‘nothing matters,’ we are quietly asked to take the phrase in its stronger sense: meaning not that there isn’t anything that matters, but that nothingness runs the show.

The result in practice is that all the alternative universes in the film, the vast number of roads not taken that are generated by every personal decision, are indeed actualisations of other worlds, but also exaggerated portraits of the one world where the main trouble began. It’s not hard to see Evelyn’s husband as a kindly nerd rather than an irrelevant pest, or to transpose the frail father from China into the gangster boss of every association in the multiverse. Admittedly, it is a little hyper for Evelyn to encounter her daughter as the evil queen of the multiverse, dressed like Lady Gaga and bent on the destruction of all forms of life, but it is still continuous with the existing problem: Evelyn can’t listen to Joy, and she can’t change her. The same goes for Joy’s own embrace of nothing: extreme, but what else is she to believe in? The acting really does count here. As busy mother and moody daughter, superheroines who increasingly rule their own worlds, Yeoh and Hsu keep these characters vividly present as persons, when it would be so easy for us to lose them among the intriguing trickeries.

The trickeries include mother and daughter becoming two rocks chatting in a deserted landscape, and a scene in a cinema where Evelyn is watching herself in the film we have been watching. This meta-film ends – ‘The End’ appears on screen – but only to remind us that our alternatives aren’t exhausted. The jokiest other worlds are the one where everyone has fingers like uncooked frankfurters and another where the deep truth of the void is encompassed in a metaphysical bagel. There is also a famous movie called Raccacouille, starring a raccoon instead of a rat.

Perhaps the most parodic invention is the practice of verse-jumping. This doesn’t mean skipping lines of poetry, but getting from one universe to another, and people can do it at will using a method that resembles filling out an online form: characters pick the skills, memories and bodies they once had or might have had and become a new person. The best verse-jumpers take over all the worlds they know of.

The word ‘multiverse’, we are told, was coined by William James in 1895, but he was only talking about the one universe that kept failing to get its act together. (The OED says it was first used in its present sense by Michael Moorcock in 1963.) ‘Visible nature,’ James wrote, ‘is all plasticity and indifference, a multiverse, as one might call it, and not a universe.’ Kwan and Scheinert almost certainly weren’t thinking of this meaning when they worried about the delay in production, but James’s remark is fully consistent with the film’s view of our world, theoretically infinite in its possibilities, yet always, like any narcissist, keen to get back to its immediate self. There is, though, as far as Everything Everywhere All at Once is concerned, one word in James’s remark that is quite wrong: ‘indifference’. The movie, like our world perhaps, is far too busy and far too nosy for that.

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