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► Everything Everywhere All At Once is in UK cinemas from 13 May.
In many on-screen adventure stories, everyday experience is revealed to be a miasma concealing a hostile world whose challenges to life and wellbeing, once recognised, can be confronted and overcome. Such tales make a strong binary claim about existence: in The Matrix (1999), for instance, the choice is between a red pill and a blue pill, representing the real and the unreal. Recently, there’s been an increase in adventure stories that invite discrimination not between two universes but across many. Multiverses now structure the Marvel and DC superhero sagas, bingeable streaming series such as Dark and Russian Doll and plenty more.
In their foregrounding of several versions of the same character, or even several personae occupying the same body, they offer a kind of pop anti-essentialism. Under their radically questionable conditions, the hero’s challenge shifts: less about overcoming false consciousness to defeat evil, more about grappling with fathomless contingency to stay in one piece and make it through the day. In this sense, navigating the multiverse is a bit like being middle-aged.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is built around this understanding. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is in trouble: her obstreperous father (James Hong) is visiting from China; her marriage to cheerful, ineffectual Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is on the rocks; their unhappy daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) perplexes Evelyn’s notions of sexuality and culture; and the family laundromat faces a fateful audit from tax inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). Then Evelyn is saddled with a multidimensional mission, charged by a secret-agent version of Waymond with accessing skills from various alternate versions of herself (teppanyaki chef, kung-fu-singer-movie-star, inanimate object) to neutralise Jobu Tupaki, a version of Joy whose chaotic energy threatens to end existence.
The great pleasures of Everything Everywhere come from the dazzlingly bizarre imagination with which the writer-director team Daniels – aka Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – bring this set-up to life. (Their previous film, Swiss Army Man, also showed serious commitment to a weird idea.) The alternative worlds here range from not-so-different to properly batshit and the embrace of absurdity is part of the cosmology’s “verse-jumping” methodology. It’s a wild tonal ride, from cartoonish ultraviolence to plaintive whimsy: think James Cameron at Dunder Mifflin, Tex Avery on TikTok or Gaspar Noé in Ann Summers, with dashes of Wachowski, Kubrick, Pixar, Wong Kar-Wai and Charlie Kaufman too. The cast are on point amid the cacophony, Hong and Curtis showing particular gusto.
For all the goofily surprising, high-octane action, this is at heart a character piece; call it poignant maximalism. Evelyn’s family’s life is ordinarily cluttered, demanding and disappointing, fraught with intergenerational miscommunication, resentment, guilt, fear, failure and regret. Fantasy writes large feelings that come with the territory: I want her dead; if he carries on like this it will be the end of us; are you for real right now?
Yeoh and Hsu’s rich dynamic is the film’s core. Their characters aren’t always likeable – frazzled and crabby, withholding and uncertain – but they hold sympathy just by doing their damn best. Jobu Tupaki is stupendously unstable, capable of transforming her looks, abilities and vibe within a scene or even a shot, from club-kid neons to golf pastels, Tudor ruffs to Elvis jumpsuit. She conveys both the child’s painful search for identity and meaning and the parent’s bewildered anxiety around loss of control and cultural transformation. Is change entropy, entropy death?
Appropriately, the multiverse concept works on many levels. There are nods at the fragmentary effects of side-hustle labour practices, living with ADHD and exploring online rabbit-holes. There’s focus too on the shifts between thought-worlds experienced by code-switching, polyglot migrant people. Different languages structure and create different modes of being; and getting lost in translation might also mean inadvertently coining a delightful new idea.
The reveries and regrets of middle age loom large, in terms of both contemplation of roads not taken and recognition of experience and satisfaction as matters of perspective: one person’s disaster zone might be another’s oasis. Yeoh’s performance shows with peculiar power the effort required to remain anchored in one reality when so many others demand one’s inevitably insufficient attention. Is it possible to chart a course of empathetic present-mindedness between impossible perfectionism and entropic ennui? The film suggests the effort is worthwhile but also recognises the impulse to refuse and withdraw. Life, like the multiverse, and Everything Everywhere All At Once, is a lot.
Sight and Sound September 2022
In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.Find out more and get a copy