Watching the Oscar-winning quirk bonanza and hashtag allegory, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert‘s Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) is like being on a theme park ride you thought would be fantastic fun, but then, ten minutes into it — nausea and disorientation kick in, colours become blurry, the experience strenuous; and here you are, unable to get off the trolley, mid-ride.
First, to rewind, digest, get one’s head around the whole whirlwind absurdist world of it. EEAAO is, at its core, two tales — an immigrant’s tale and a coming out story, merging into one — the story of an outsider finding solace in the imaginal — as the banality of the real is so tremendously soul-crushing. Evelyn Wang, acted with perfect-pitch by the excellent Michelle Yeoh, left China for America a few decades ago, and is running a laundromat business that is slowly going under. Mostly, due to her messy bookkeeping practices and a doggedly no-nonsense IRS agent, called Deidre (a hilariously believable Jamie Lee Curtis), who aims to get to the bottom of the haphazard pile of receipts, and penalise the flakey Evelyn. A woman who deducts as expenses her many ‘hobbies’, all under the umbrella of her business, subconsciously keeping afloat and alive the many possible paths in life she would have wanted to have experienced, but never did.
Evelyn’s loyal husband, Waymond Wang, played by the bubbly Ke Huy Quan, whom she eloped to the US with, is on the verge of divorcing her, his own visions of the future dashed, as he is no longer (if he ever was) her romantic leading man. Evelyn’s daughter, Joy (an earnest Stephanie Hsu), never feeling good enough for her over-critical mom, and knowing that being gay will possibly always be a problem in her traditional family, tries to find ways to merge her worlds, without much luck, and with growing heartbreak. There is also the visiting grandad (acting legend James Hong), almost as an ancestor spirit, omnipresent in judgment, but lacking in any kind of constructive agency.
And then, a strange thing happens on the way to the the tax office.
Universes collide, alternate identities are revealed, Waymond becomes Alpha-Waymond from the Alphaverse (kudos for the alpha pun), and Evelyn learns of her exceptional destiny as the One who will defeat darkness, presently spreading throughout all levels of existence, all at once.
Problem is, this evil has taken the form of her own estranged daughter, who the Alpha-Evelyn in the Alphaverse pushed too hard to jump verses. Lost in sorrow, Joy has now become not only joy-less, but the key agent of chaos in the entire Multiverse, constructing a black hole of nothingness, out of a sesame-poppy-seed-everything bagel, no less, after filling it with a ratatouille of earthly existence.
In order to save Joy (exorcise her, really), and remove the threat of the now alpha grandad eliminating her, Evelyn needs to gather the strength and knowhow of all the roads she never took, the lives she never attempted, but which exist, successful, somewhere, in a parallel place, a cosmos of their own, and harness that power to reach her own “full potential”. Elements of which can be found even in such planes as is the universe where she is a rock, together with her daughter, or where people have evolved their feet to an exceptional degree because they developed hot-dogs instead of fingers — thus need to make the best of it.
In which, as a particular delight, there is a romance blossoming between Evelyn and the now mellowed Deidre.
Although amusing, imaginative, and randomly brilliant, what EEAAO visually made me recall, throughout, is a series of incredibly flamboyant emojis. Emojis in heated dialogue. Endless, fruitless emoji fights. Pile-on emojis. Emojis come to life by the exceptional craftsmanship of the EEAAO team.
And I believe this may have been its goal.
All these animate identities, fully formed and given context, as escape hatches to different lives, incarnations as relief packages, superherodom as means to enrich a disenchanted life with a heightened purpose and meaning.
Equally, the film is a critique of VR attachments to multiple universes which are as stable as is the power cable, and a call to sober up, get real, as any time soon, you might get audited.
It holds within it a great idea, when one disentangles it from the hairball that is the EEAAO narrative. But, in all the cornucopia of visual acrobatics and visceral distractions, for me, it failed to deliver.
This might sound harsh for a film that arguably has glorious, Pythonesque moments of glee, and a bunch of excellent wit thrown around, to keep the momentum going. However, to get to those great bits, there is also a tremendous amount of trivia to go through.
Then, again, it might have been exactly its point. This is how it is in our many strands of virtual being, the availability of everything at our fingertips.
In striving to become a replica of online multiverse living, EEAAO also picks up on VR’s greatest weakness — the repeat cycle. Its just like RL, actually. Laundry and taxes, but in cosplay technicolour.
So why does the film fail? Because, in all its originality, it telegraphs its message, instead of allowing this intricately constructed ingenious world to be the message.
To sum it up, as I am now going in circles, too (quick wash, like any review) — I sincerely enjoyed the zaniness, deeply disked the schmaltz — and felt exhausted by the film, rather than inspired and entertained.
Although the entire cast is absolutely there for it, I found Jamie Lee Curtis and her tax inspector grump to be the best part of EEAAO, simply because she clearly understood, as the ultimate genre-queen, that this entire weird & wired world could only become credible to the viewer if everyone, everywhere, and at every point, never plays the card of sentimentality.
That didn’t happen.
As reminder of how all this quantum leaping can work out a treat — watch Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
On the other hand, many across the globe loved EEAAO, and I suspect it was exactly because of its billboard-sized messaging service. And that’s OK, too.
Be kind. To each his own.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov