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 like Star Wars, where cosmic empathy becomes possible only after cutting all evildoers in half. 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). They get closer to the heart of the Daoist mindset, using hefty family emotions powered by two brilliant performances to evoke their cosmic truths in the context of a broader narrative about the Asian immigrant experience. Yet, their screenplay 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 so strongly, 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 stunt 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 didn't need to explain the particulars of universe transferences if the explanations are dumped for a joke or plot-vital reasons, such as when a character “teleports” into another universe in front of people driving on a road, in a place her body could not have been in that one. 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.

The best parts use contextual multiverse interactions to encourage 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 – an example of what her life could have been without 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 leave the original continuum altogether through the creative device of the movie premiere and subvert everything we thought we knew about the expected action climax and the "protagonist" Evelyn that had been driving the film. Basically, I was waiting for a true multiverse mic drop.

Instead, the film shrugs off that universe (and all of them) to keep things contained in the first one for an entirely predictable action climax related to basic family revelations, neglecting the core concept in favor of re-expressing blockbuster inevitabilities. That movie theater segment is a miraculously rare instance of Evelyn interacting with another universe for a dramatic purpose. Most of the 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 passes time with one-off jokes about Evelyn's professions in other timelines without exploiting them for dramatic development. Though the film insists that she inhabits the conscious experiences of her other versions, the result is much simpler. She might as well be physically jumping between random comedic associations, connected only by the overarching point that all things, no matter how weird, are essentially equal. And since the script combines her daughters (Stephanie Hsu) into one, she rarely comes to terms with multiple versions of her choices, relying on the starting continuum for clarity unless a plot-specific reason arises to hastily invent another, enticing easy praise with reverse-engineered plot catharsis. While it admirably skims the limits between a family drama and science fiction comedy, when the chips are down and EEAO is supposed to be cosmically meaningful, it's hard not to think that Arrival presented similar information with a far more encompassing emotional framework in one timeline than the Daniels manage with all of them.

The guiding thread is the exposition from the Joy known as Jobu Topacky, who relates the central struggle to the millennial malaise through an idea of science fiction with meticulous, repetitive clarity, somewhere 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 this family's unrealistically cosmic significance should lure the viewer to suspect that the film could be a weirdo manifestation of Evelyn's fears as she cracks up at the tax office. The introduction of scientists in lab coats costs it that fantastical deniability, forcing a closer examination of devices that only work from a distance. The amount of time the screenplay spends 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, and in any moments with googly eyes in EEAO. But by translating absurdity literally to tangible universes of the “absurd,” they create opportunities to thwart themselves. Instead of a cosmically scary yet normal bagel, the "Everything Bagel" thrums with half-baked CGI significance. By contrast, 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." Its secret poetry was that the smallest moment, the least important seeming symbols, contained the cosmos better than any that explains its bigness in repeated thematic statements, re-animates them for clarity, and flashes back to them later for even more clarity. To put it another way, by trying less hard to be accepted as a bagel, that was a film that better exemplified what it meant to be googly eyes than this one.

For a film that seems to demonstrate the saying, which is pretty Daoist at heart, that you should "go with the flow," Everything Everywhere fidgets with its intentions out of a fear of being misunderstood or boring. The result is suspiciously easy to grasp for a film sold on limitless complexity, a narrative espousing endless possibility that doesn't have 1/10th of the warped emotional unraveling of that one jump in Mulholland Drive (there were no scientists in lab coats to explain it to her). Like Lynch's film, EEAO is one that everyone wants to talk "about." But no one has anything groundbreaking to add. There’s a point in the third act where it boils down to nothing but slow-motion, cutting to flashbacks, snapping to wide-eyed revelations, cutting back to slow-motion. These sappy spiritual exposures repeat 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 roughly the same narrative content as the Rick and Morty episode, “Rixty Minutes," the first to feature "interdimensional cable." 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 the film over-extracts the premise until it can mirror the tone of Avengers: Endgame. 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, as though the film hinges less on personal growth than on procuring explicit verbal affirmations from anyone over a certain age bracket.

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, channeled 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 lifestyle advice for an audience tempted to see themselves in them. 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 continuously, all the time, 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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