Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan

I’m in my tenth year as a high school teacher, and I’ve been listening to conversations in my classroom and standing in the hallways and reviewing papers long enough to know that teenagers, as a class, are not much for new ideas. Ideas that are new to them they latch onto, ideas that have some kind of conspiratorial flavor, that center themselves in an endless starfield, that make the foibles of others into chances for self-aggrandizement, that imagines now as forever and ergo now is a teleological imperative. But in those conversations in my room or in the halls, in the papers and assignments I read, new ideas are basically absent. I’m not a crank and I’m not one of those teachers who bemoans the day that “cellular telephones” or “disrespect” or whatever bogeyman it was entered education and closed Eden forever. It’s not reasonable to expect that children should have ideas which are new to many rather than new to themselves; to indulge in those new-to-themselves concepts is as much a necessary rite of passage as learning how to use tampons, popping a zit, or listening to music really loudly. Why should it bother me, or anyone, that the kids aren’t equipped for new ideas yet? There’s a personal conservatism in most of them that I think they’d describe as a form of propriety, but in practice it keeps them from having to reckon with something that would be actually new.

The new, or at least whatever little gremlin is wearing an “I’m new!” Halloween costume, demands for us to search for it in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The film references Ratatouille and turns it into “Raccacoonie,” in which an especially talented teppanyaki chef, Chad (Harry Shum, Jr.) is actually being controlled by a raccoon pulling on his hair. I am very fond of Raccacoonie, although I’m such a sucker for raccoon content that I can’t vouch for the quality of the joke on its own merits. What it reminded me of most was, as always, Anton Ego’s review of Gusteau’s at the end of the film, in which he argued that it’s a critic’s responsibility to defend the new. It was at the moment I saw that raccoon puppet atop the guy who I will always think of as “Mike from Glee” that I tried to be kinder to Everything Everywhere. Is this movie doing something new? Is there something unprecedented in this film which deserves defending? Or is this just The Artist for the early 2020s, with Michelle Yeoh’s martial arts replacing Jean Dujardin’s tapdancing and Ke Huy Quan standing in for Uggie?

Richard Brody, as far as I’m concerned, buried this movie for good when he called it a “cynical feature-length directorial pitch for a Marvel movie.” It looks like a Marvel movie because it brings the same mid-brown sludge to action backgrounds (cut, I say cut that CGI budget). It looks like a Marvel movie because it uses a monocolor set (an all-white room here, the heavy gold theaters of Thor: Love and Thunder and Guardians of the Galaxy 2) to pretend that the movie is more colorful than it is. It looks like a Marvel movie because it chooses the mundane as the setting for great doings, with the IRS office standing in for the airport in Captain America: Civil War. It’s incredible that this bears repeating, but this is a visual medium. Not only does Everything Everywhere fail to do anything meaningfully different or new in its visual approach, nothing you haven’t seen done better in a Duran Duran video, but the visuals in this film are, at best, meh. When test pilots became astronauts in the 1960s, the differences in the laws of aeronautics versus the laws of orbital mechanics meant that they had to rewire their brains in order to fly spacecraft. A film with great visuals forces a moviegoer to fly a spacecraft rather than an airplane no matter how many hours s/he’s spent in props and jets. Everything Everywhere is an unattractive film, and there is no wonder to be found in its shots, either individual or sequenced. More importantly, it is the kind of film which one can follow visually even if the most challenging picture one has seen is based on comic book IP. If there are like, twenty-nine MCU movies and who even knows how many DC movies, and those movies are the most popular films of the last fifteen years, and Everything Everywhere just looks like another one of those, then it defies reason to suggest that this movie might be doing anything new with the way it looks.

Once Evelyn (Yeoh) begins to grasp that by doing some typically strange action one can gain an ability from another version of herself, she and her opponents begin to do so more frequently as the fodder for their fights. From the version of Evelyn who flips a sign advertising pizza she learns to spin a riot shield as a weapon. From the version of Evelyn who sings in the Chinese opera she gains increased lung capacity. Her chief opponents find, in one sequence, that if they stick stuff up their butts their kung fu becomes stronger. Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) staples something to her forehead for a similar reason. The more this happened, the more I wanted to know the cost of those actions. If it creates x action in the universe we’re watching, then what is its effect in y universe? As far as I can tell, there’s not really a ramification; certainly there’s no proof of some other-universe Evelyn who shows up with Pixy Stix instead of toes or something and who can trace that result back to Waymond (Quan) giving himself paper cuts between his fingers. This is significant, I think. The film is high on its own supply about “every little choice makes a gazillion new things,” but it never gets after how that happens in this timeline except for how it will lead to Evelyn and Joy (Hsu) reuniting, with the most generic language, in a parking lot. There’s a shabbiness to this conceit, something much closer to Star Wars than Solaris but without the visual or technical savvy to make this flaccid plot do anything more than dangle. (Yes, this is a reference to the dildos, and to some extent also the hot dog fingers.)

The writing in the first half of the film is just all exposition, so much exposition, almost more like a Zoom lecture with your camera off than a movie with dialogue. In the second half, the writing is a blur. Does anyone say anything in the second half of the movie that lingers long enough to stay in mind for the next scene? Ke Huy Quan says some cute things which don’t really seem to fit in with the sheer necessity of all the physical combat that Michelle Yeoh is up to. And yet his Waymond is essential to Evelyn getting her second chance in much the same way that Jack alerts people to the house fire that threatens to kill Valentin in The Artist. Evelyn reunites with Joy and says the right things and it all just feels like it’s the end of a sitcom that made it to a fourth season rather than the end of a movie. There’s a lot of dialogue, just a bunch of talking in this movie, and if you scan enough reviews of the film, even the negative ones say Everything Everywhere is just full of ideas. Conflating the motormouth talking of this film with ideas is akin to conflating a child’s rhinestone tiara with a queen’s festooned diadem.

The ideas in here, as far as I can tell, have to do with a pair of first-generation immigrants dealing with the expectations of their forbears and the immigrant changes wrought on their second-generation children. Evelyn’s taxes are, in all seriousness, given more weight in this movie than any serious or emotional reckoning with her father (James Hong) or her daughter. If Joy is queer, is that a particularly difficult issue in the Chinese-American community of southern California compared to its thorniness in others? If Evelyn feels a responsibility to her father’s pride even in his dotage, is that a particularly salient issue in the Chinese-American community of Southern California compared to its weightiness in others? The film gestures at both as if these are specifically or even endemically connected to that community, but even if they were essential to this group and not to any others, the film never does the work to make those any more than stereotype. The same limpness that infects the movie’s approach to physics is present here as well. It doesn’t have to cohere, it just has to be Canadian buzzy (you know, outdated by five or six years). I think it’d be possible to read Evelyn as some kind of reductive stereotype, a Tiger Mom, but at the same time there’s nothing about Evelyn’s flavors of homophobia and ridiculously demanding which aren’t totally universal. It’s too bland to even be a stereotype.

Everything Everywhere All at Once watches like young adult literature, and given its success, like best-selling YA lit at that. A chosen person with regular problems finds out that s/he is chosen in the midst of befuddling events with a buzzy title (wizards! magicians! vampires! time travel! the multiverse!), and it turns out that fixing those seemingly scary problems is as simple as martial arts (or whatever rapidly gained abilities) and saying “I love you.” Everything Everywhere isn’t new. If it’s groundbreaking, it’s only because it’s got the Letterboxd crowd cheeping like baby vultures waiting for it to regurgitate a meal of dubious freshness.

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