Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once ★★★★

Multiplex Multiverse

While not the revelation the widespread audience and critical acclaim might suggest, including being voted atop the Letterboxd Top 250 List, what with a nothing bagel of sophomoric nihilistic philosophizing that's resolved in bathetic sentimentalism and supposedly being an anti-corporatist response to the MCU multiverse but that's all the less convincing as produced by Marvel regulars the Russo brothers and starring also Marvel regular Michelle Yeoh, "Everything Everywhere All at Once" nevertheless succeeds at realizing the promise of a parallel-worlds scenario to reflect plural genres and styles. It's what's been done before by the better of this kind, particularly in animation up to this point with "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" (2018) and the TV series "Rick and Morty." And it's what the MCU has been pretty incompetent with thus far, as instead Disney tried to "fix" prior Spidey series into conforming with its house style in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" (2021) and make an uneasy combination of that corporate design with its auteur's proclivities as Sam Raimi's characteristic horror comedy beats clashed with the PG-13 kiddie and franchise-building aims of the MCU in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" (2022).

Turning the narrative on the film-within-the-film, with the same title no less and starring a version of Yeoh's real-world martial-arts movie-star persona more so than a version of the character, Evelyn, she plays in the movie proper, and that's really more of a film-within-the-film-within-another-film given that the movie premiere takes place in a world in the style of a Wong Kar-wai picture is such a marvelous move--harking all the way back with its rapid montage and visual effects to Buster Keaton's dreaming projectionist in "Sherlock, Jr." (1924)--that I'd rate this highly even if the rest were utterly feeble, although fortunately it isn't, not entirely. I'm also amused that I know someone who was fooled into exiting upon the false end.

Besides multiverses being a popular fantasy premise of late, I've noticed quite a few genre pics leaning heavily into existential dread, that void represented here by the theory of everything bagel of a black hole. Aside from that Stephen Hawking allusion, I guess, this one lacks the interest and explicit philosophical foundation though of, say, Buddhism to Derrida in "The Empty Man" (2020), or even the absurdism of Albert Camus in "She Dies Tomorrow" (2020), and Baudrillard to Carroll's Alice books in "The Matrix" (1999). Indeed, it's simply the nihilism of "The Matrix" as well as "Fight Club" (1999) that the writers-and-directors Daniels cite as their inspiration in the collection of, hey, look at the pop culture we grew up on. Rather than reference a text such as "Simulacra and Simulation," they quote a silly pop song ("Absolutely (Story of a Girl)" by the one-hit wonders Nine Days). As if the frantic pacing and juvenile emotionalism here weren't enough to clue one in on the fact the Daniels's background is in music videos.

Never mind, either, that the two poorly fleshed-out yet overly-expositional/lampshaded concepts contradict each other, with its chaos theory branching alternate dimensions, and not even to get into the alpha-and-beta duality, based on the minutest human choices and whose souls extend throughout the cosmos regardless of DNA and evolution--from sausage fingers to rocks; whereas its "nothing matters" nihilism asserts that every discovery supposedly makes humans smaller, less important. I know we're dealing with parallel universes here, but, c'mon, pick a lane. And, all of that, still beats the cloying bromides offered to resolve this existential crisis, which would be laughable in a "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983) sort of way (albeit there's a number 42 "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" reference) if it weren't so excruciating in its prolonged banality and replacing the "crumbling institutions" of community with nihilism cults and laundromat parties, the church of cinema. Deleted scenes even included the bookending gospel of Aqua's song "Barbie Girl."

Better to go with the suggestion of this diegesis as the daydreaming of a woman with ADHD (indeed, one of the writer-director's claims his own diagnosis derived from this very production), who confronts a generational conflict with her suicidal daughter (ironically named "Joy"), while suffering a "divorce" from the only things in life that are certain, death and taxes. Now, that's a compelling philosophy: one based on a pun. Add to that pluralism as but a cinematic and cultural jumping pad for the chaotic absurdism, and it seems much more sensible, self-contained.

The nostalgic critique of the internet, then, with a multi-screening multiverse "meta" feed downloaded as an app on a smartphone, hooked up to its users by Bluetooth headsets and more unusual-looking virtual-reality gear, and with "burner" worlds, is more so a pastiche of "The Matrix." "The one" even crawls around office cubicles in a green fog of color correction like Neo did afore. Cracked mirrors as referencing the Wachowskis instead of its origins in the Alice books. The elevator business reminded me a bit of "Inception" (2010), too, which would go to the theme of techno dreaming. Even before we get to the postmodern Kar-wai homage, all of this multiplicity is first reflected in an eight-planed view of security camera footage, and another camera's view is blocked with an umbrella in the elevator. The multiverse resides in cameras and screens, in movies.

This washer-and-dryer tumbler of film connections extends from a generational immigrant family drama playing in front of a "King and I" musical on TV, to a series of increasingly absurd martial-arts and wuxia fights, Jamie Lee Curtis as the paper-cut slasher horror stalker, the Looney Tunes rule-breaking nonsense of Jobu Tupaki, the "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) evolution of hot dogs as fingers, the aforementioned Wong Kar-wai styled film, and of course Pixar's "Racacoonie." Just as an Easter egg hunt this is fun. Quite prescient, too, being this was filmed before pandemic lockdown, with the Jobu's initial masking, which she will remove only to infect others with her existential despair, and the nihilism cult looks like they're wearing the face shields purchased by some crew member ahead of the game on the coming contagion.

After I've been complaining about Disney's tendency for obnoxious virtual-signaling tokenism, it's welcome, too, that the pluralism here is so well integrated into the narrative. Indeed, the set-up is stereotypical. I mean, a Chinese laundry with generational conflict, including over the daughter's lesbianism and the tiger mom's bigoted rigidity. The only trope initially reversed is, as the perfume-sniffing customer says, "I thought you people were very good with numbers." This just serves for further multilingual jumping pads, though, into a further-reaching diversity of cinematic culture. Effective, except they neglected to resolve the "Big Nose" anti-Semitism for Jenny Slate's character, with the defense being that resolution was in a deleted scene and the slur was meant as anti-white, not anti-Jewish. I guess that's supposed to make it better.

Regardless, there's so much here, if not everything, to like and that passes by at a rapid pace, if not everywhere all at once, it's easy enough to overlook flaws, from nitpicking a character stereotype to fundamental philosophical lack. Besides, it gets some basic things right, of the multiverse being a cinematic philosophy or religion, and plenty of small things. I like the mirror and circle motifs, even the cookies. The googly third eye was especially hilarious after having recently seen the latest "Doctor Strange." Naturally, for music-video directors, the scoring is effective. Changes in aspect ratio, color correction, and style overall work. The acting is good. Indeed, it's Yeoh's movie largely, but Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, and Curtis also get to switch between different characters, each acting in their own competing movies. Combined with some imaginative costume and make-up alterations, Hsu has some effective facial expressions. Hedonistically, as well as aesthetically, at least it was entertaining enough for me not to feel as though I were gazing into too many voids, although now I could go for a bagel.

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