Everything Everywhere All at Once: Exposition Epic

Daoist philosophy, a subject Everything Everywhere All at Once seems to teach as often as shrug off, daring you to guess which is the wiser lesson, uses “Yin” and “Yang” to evoke a feeling of human meaning in a universe that it proposes is not inherently meaningful. This contrasts with the clash of the ultimatums “good” and “evil” in the Westernized Daoist retellings (Master Yoda spoke of cosmic understanding only possible after the Dark Side has been murdered down a mine shaft). In the Daniels’ (Kwan and Scheinert) new action film, or their aggressively tweetable stream of consciousness philosophy film, Yin and Yang might as well be kindness and chaos, or googly eyes and an everything bagel (Gary Larson could turn this movie into one panel). Their emotions are hefty, powered by two brilliant performances, and particularly evocative in the context of the broader narrative of the Asian immigrant experience. Yet, it is too over-enunciated by moral generalities to leave the impact it hoped on all seven of its genres.

It was written as a Jackie Chan vehicle, which the Daniels shifted to Michelle Yeoh to reinforce a stronger parental narrative, which makes sense. Yeoh has a way of making you believe in her characters’ habit of self-loathing, a form of it only attained through the most self-delegated strictness, as though her expectations are so high that she has no choice but to be disappointed. The result in the audience is always the same, no matter the role – the feeling of being impressed. And in a mom, once an immigrant wobbling in pursuit of an American dream and now drowning in regret for her failed potential, Yeoh brings out her cinematic archetype to powerful effect. But the Daniels underestimated how difficult it was to shift their concept to her and their film feels as much like a melodrama that cuts to action for lolz as a Jackie movie bogged down by particulars. Lacking his pratfalls and immense self-belief, the film struggles for an action identity. When Evelyn (Yeoh) hides from an assailant who is five feet away yet can't see or hear her, the Daniels, like many who direct action with no experience directing action, mistake "out of frame" for "out of mind." Other action, such as a scene in which she unconvincingly flips around a cartoon riot shield, is the opposite appearance but the same result. It shows too much to be believed, rather than too little. The film has the unmistakable flavor of a comeback, but it has no action scene that stands against the best of her career, or even in that league. It's often edited in the exact way it would be if the actor was not doing the stunts themselves.

Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) covers the deficit as Evelyn’s googly-eyed husband. His performance may not be as flashy (if Yeoh is a hot knife, he’s the butter it’s going through), but he is no less deserving of valorous adjectives in movie reviews. He even has the film’s best action scene, in which he takes down a group of cops with a fanny pack. He has always been to films (even back when he was the flippant sidekick kid in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the googly eyes that can kick a sour situation with some cosmic kindness. His innocence made the situations reveal themselves. This role in Everything Everywhere is not just a return for the actor, but a return to cinema of the special energy missing from it without him. If nothing else comes from the film but a renewed interest in finding parts that match him, it will have been worth the effort (and I hope the Daniels fulfill their promise to Jackie with their next script).

But it is an effort, even as the first dose of exposition intrudes on the understated family comedy that begins the film, about their struggle to fit into the American system even after all these years. They bargain with a cranky tax auditor for understanding (Jamie Lee Curtis plays her as a comedic cameo that evolves into a humane joke, her belly blatantly fattened with all the cookies people bring her to beg for leniency). Then the film throws Evelyn into a Matrix-level sequence of expository world-setting where she learns that with the right random trigger, she can gain the skills and memories of other versions of herself in the multiverse. Yeoh is perfect at receiving the information like you just told your grandma how to change the TV input. The concept itself no longer blows minds in a post-MCU industry, so it relies on her charm to carry the explanations as though it could.

The Daniels both establish and break these rules with the casual tone of not having established any to begin with, which adds to the film’s chic resistance to criticism but not to its immersion. When two men fight for one “trigger” to gain fighting abilities (sticking something up their butts), the film fails to explain how two people have one trigger for the same skills. Then Evelyn pulls them out of their butts to “deactivate” their fighting skills, another aspect of the rules that was not explained that way. The Daniels may have thought it was funny to make one of the greatest living actors prune her face at removing butt-plugs from her assailants, but the joke isn’t worth the hassle, presented with the same obvious self-pleasure as the jokes in Epic Movie.

These blips in the film’s rules do not negate its emotional narrative, but they retroactively make its exposition scenes less needed. Scientists in lab coats do not need to explain the particulars of universe transferences if a character will “teleport” into another universe in front of people driving on a road, in a place her body would not have been. The hidden justification for anything in this movie, that the possibilities are “infinite,” means that exposition does not explain things – it explains them away. It placates analysis rather than invites it. My group leaving the theater was distracted by half a dozen of these quibbles, before taking the film at its word that infinity makes the rules “unimportant” and giving in. The science fiction here may be confident, but it's nowhere near the level of clarity required to be impressive.

The best uses of the concept involve that emotional throughline where contextual interactions in other universes lead to revelations. The Daniels’ script mixes these moments unevenly with the sight gags, which take over the film, but the best one involves Evelyn in a universe where she’s a kung fu movie star, glittering in feathery gowns at movie premieres (basically, she’s Michelle Yeoh). Outside the theater, she sees that universe's Waymond after years spent apart – this to her is an example of what her life could have been without him, which includes a need for him. Their talk in the alley outside is smoky-metaphysical, neon cabaret lights dripping down walls. The Daniels made eight minutes of a Wong Kar-Wai film. Quan achieves the effect as a return to cinema within the film as well as in its meta, containing the wide-eyed curiosity of Short Round (his own dreams of stardom) and wielding our memory of it with the understated relevance of a guy who just wants the universe to be nicer to his family. I was waiting for the film to drop the original continuum altogether and shift to this one to subvert what the audience thought they knew about the expected action climax.

Instead, the film shrugs off that universe (and all of them) to keep things contained in the first one. It’s miraculously the only instance of Evelyn interacting with another universe for a dramatic purpose, the only time the film’s concept lands on both feet. Other family members she meets, such as the trio from the “Alpha Verse,” just fill her Twinkie brain with whipped exposition cream (she’s conveniently dead in that universe, so nothing comes of that either). Despite its provocative title, Everything Everywhere All at Once remains intellectually restrained from using different realities to expand its dramatic context, which on paper seems like the entire point. Yet Evelyn doesn’t interact with multiple Joys (Stephanie Hsu) since the script combined them, or with multiple versions of her choices with her husband and father, or her life at their laundromat. The flashbacks contextualizing it are repeated from only one continuum, as though she’s remembering her young daughter from the one day they spent together, not the lifetime (Arrival presented similar information with a feeling of emotional vastness in one timeline that this film can’t find even using all of them).

The screenplay compulsively avoids dramatic consequences until it’s ready to explain them, which leads to a lot of one-off jokes about Evelyn’s professions in other timelines but not a lot of dramatic development. She might as well be one Evelyn, physically traveling to kooky worlds based on random comedic associations, rather than actually inhabiting those consciousnesses. The guiding thread is the exposition from the Joy known as Jobu Topacky, who relates the central struggle to the Gen. Z malaise in the context of the film’s idea of science fiction with meticulous, repetitive clarity, as something between a supervillain rockstar and the screenplay itself after it’s achieved sentience. Despite one of the most nail-biting villain introductions in recent memory (it would make Thanos hide under his obsidian bed), Jobu spends most of the film delaying the things she could do to prolong revelations. Her pinball personality in the opening peters out, as though the screenplay would explode if it had to keep it up.

She represents one of the Daniels' great ideas: that Evelyn’s concept of the end of the universe would be a daughter whose lack of confidence, perceived as ungratefulness, is emblematic of how much her mother failed her. But it would make more sense for this family to be so cosmically important if the film could be in Evelyn’s head the whole time, as she cracks up at the tax office. Once it introduces scientists in labcoats, or anything outside of Evelyn’s sphere of perception, it loses that deniability. The amount of time the screenplay takes convincing the audience to treat these scenes profoundly is much greater than the time spent making them profound.

In absurdist comedy, a profound gesture could be the smallest, silliest one. The Daniels comprehended this relationship with wacky-humane signals in their previous film, Swiss Army Man. But by translating absurdity literally to tangible universes of the “absurd,” they create opportunities to thwart themselves. One example is the “everything bagel,” which could have been both hilarious and more absurd by looking like a normal bagel. Yet, with their upscaled budget, they funded a half-baked CGI blackhole effect that doesn’t feel like absurdism – it feels like a “Yang” on loan from a film where a device like that is supposed to be taken as gravely as a Death Star. Swiss Army Man managed to create a totality feeling with nothing but a lonely guy re-enacting the time he didn’t talk to a girl on a bus while humming the Jurassic Park theme with a corpse. It never matters to that film whether it's "really happening" or not. Its secret poetry was that the smallest moment, the least important seeming symbols, contained the cosmos better than any that exudes its "bigness," explains it, animates it, and flashes back to justify the feeling.

Forgetting this is why Everything Everywhere is so suspiciously easy to grasp for a film sold on the premise of limitless complexity. It’s like a version of Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts gets cellphone calls about why she’s “jumping,” which would have improved that film’s accessibility but robbed it of the feeling of warped timelessness where the audience felt disenfranchised by those eventualities. That film transitioned only once or twice to an “alternate universe,” yet it felt many times more disconcerting than a thousand transitions here. For a film that tries to demonstrate the saying, which is pretty Daoist at heart, that you should "go with the flow," Everything Everywhere fidgets with its intentions constantly out of the fear of being misunderstood or boring someone. The result is a film that everyone seems to want to talk "about," but about which no one has anything ground-breaking to say.

There’s a point in the third act where the film is nothing but slow-motion, cutting to flashbacks, snapping to wide-eyed revelations, cutting back to slow-motion. These sappy spiritual exposures repeat seemingly until everyone, everywhere can understand the film’s point. This does not mean that the Daniels skimp on emotionally fluent revelations about how our life choices impact our self-worth. But their script contains about the same amount of narrative content as the Rick and Morty episode, “Rixty Minutes" (it's the one where Beth and Jerry view themselves in alternate timelines and discover why they need each other in this one while Ricky and Morty watch random continuums on his interdimensional cable set). Both the episode and this film take the absurd at the face value of its human feeling to reconcile the inevitability of regret with the clarity of acceptance. But one is much less desperate about it.

Even the subject of the disenfranchised millennial seemed less intrusive in “Rixty Minutes,” where in Everything Everywhere the repeated pleas for tolerance from older generations start to become problematic through repetition. The cast rails against the material with complete honor – nothing less could be said of them. They’re led by a woman whose docile disbelief, challenged through the flippant attitude of a put-out mother, is epically contextualized by a posture that you never doubt contains an action goddess. The fact that her misexpressed expectations for her daughter warped by her doubt in her own achievements is the force that threatens to destroy the multiverse is a masterstroke combination of emotional turmoil and plot logistics. Quan has both the best scene of action and exposition, in which he explains that this Evelyn is the most capable of saving the multiverse precisely because she has failed so often.

Yet, most of the film is solved by either imprecise applications of things it “explained” or overly precise emotional revelations that are so self-important they become stand-ins for an audience tempted to see themselves in them. They form the most prevalent part of its persuasive argument to be taken seriously (perhaps no film in recent memory is more strategically focused on making the audience mistake poses for poetry). The magnificent actors use not only their current skills but their personal cinematic mythologies to make it work. But there isn’t much under its surface that it does not, at multiple points, all the time, continuously, explain in sappy detail until everyone's on the one and only page. The film blows senses and hopes this will be enough to make minds believe they were blown too. Maybe I never learned to go with the flow.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©A24

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