Henji Byde’s review published on Letterboxd:
I'm 26 and feel like one of the definitive psychological features of my existence is the sense of looming, sinister omniscience thrust upon me and my peers by all the ways the world is now so connected and accessible, but specifically the internet, coupled with a theoretical omnipotence borne of Western bootstrappy individualism. I assume that such feelings are not unique to the internet generation but they must be at least amped up? At any moment I can pull out my phone and see any kind of porn I can imagine, videos of cartel murders, endless wikipedia wormholes, torrented academic journals, highlight reels of the lives of friends and acquaintances and celebrities, instantaneous communication with all of them theoretically possible. Obviously the idea that *everything* is on the internet (or TV, or even in books) is a malicious fallacy, but it's close enough for the effect to be total. The endless possibilities and contradictions of the world are not just at my fingertips but always humming in the back of my mind. And on top of that I am told that I could have any of these experiences, be any of these people, if only I set that goal and applied myself. YMMV with that sense of monumentally unrealized infinite potential, I'm a middle-class cis(?) white guy(?) so maybe not everyone is brought up in such a way that "you can do anything you set your mind to" is such a deadening, constant pressure, but even with the differences in what kind of privilege individuals are born into, I think it's fairly safe to say that idea undergirds the psychology of the West.
My point is - Richard Brody is bar none my favorite film critic and I was delighted to read his pan of this extremely mixed bag, this high-exertion simulation of an imaginative or ambitious movie, but I can't quite bring myself to agree that it's fundamentally cynical. I think it's bewildering that there is not more—much more—media concerned with what a soul-winnowing mindfuck the internet era is. And the story the Daniels are trying to tell here—of a boomer having to understand and experience the postmodern nihilism of her gen-z daughter in order to pull her back from the edge, and more deeply accept the merits of her own disappointing life in the process—is sweet, timely, and appreciated. I think it's a nice story with a broad understanding of one of the central pains or dilemmas of modern life. And that pushes me over the edge into generally liking this movie despite my misgivings.
The misgivings: it is an earnest film but not a sincere one. Anything truly sincere will necessarily be more probing and reflective than this incurious, prefabricated roller coaster of platitudes, which constantly points to the Daniels' background in commercials and music videos not as artists but corporate propagandists of sentiment (that phrasing sounds extreme but I mean it as differentiation more than condemnation). It's garbled and constrictive, the weight of its relationships shredded by its striving for complete universality, and by, as Brody notes, every supporting character existing as a single problem for Michelle Yeoh to solve with kindness. Sweetie husband, bitter IRS agent, conservative dad, postmodern daughter. Little dimensionality. The building blocks of this film are sentiment and nonsense. "Nonsense" in that all of the film's lo-fi expository fantasy and zany humor (rarely funny) exists in a vacuum, and the Daniels—gimmick directors with some technical skill and ostensible bravura but little sense of texture or poetry—refuse to milk it, to make it evocative or dramatic, to provide variety. That is, they have little investment in the ramifications of their fantasy world and milquetoast absurdism, and it's all simply a dazzling (in the sense of being psychically blinding) package for the threadbare trail of stock reassurances they've carefully laid out. A fresh coat of paint applied via jackhammer. Again, I think what they're trying to address with this film is worthy; how they resolve it, less so.
It is at its best and worst in the MILD SPOILERS I GUESS rock scene, one of the only times—in fact, THE only time—the Daniels employ their hyperactive multiverse conceit for any kind of distinct textural effect, but also the scene where the film's most unrelentingly direct and trite sentiments are emphatically laid out as text onscreen, feeling for all the world like a facebook-viral photoshopped screenshot of an inspirational message exchange. And I find the idea of that scene, uh, poignant to say the least, you have NO idea how often, when I'm depressed, I imagine myself having been born as a rock, existing in awed, wondrous jealousy of any form of life at all, let alone one as complex as humanity. I have no segue out of this paragraph, just wanted to mention that scene, the film's apex and nadir.
Proof there's such a thing as an enormous quantity of very little at all. Endless reviews being like "it is what it says on the tin" but there's a lot less going on here than it appears on the surface. It is also rarely funny (Jenny Slate wyd???? Tf???); pretty dull-looking with unimaginative, even arbitrary and thoughtless compositions and mise en scene (most of the movie is set in the IRS building and it is a massive failure of production design and direction, a symbolically key location that dominates 75% of a 140-minute movie and conveys nothing, not even an intentional sense of Kafkaesque anonymity or blandness, it's totally inexpressive - another example of the Daniels' disinterest in plumbing the implications and possibilities of any element of their film beyond their narrow chain of preordained emotional beats and hackneyed gags). Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu - all absolutely terrific. They're all so good, so charming, so convincing in their depth of feeling, I wish they were in a better movie. Good turn from Jamie Lee Curtis too. Also loved the raccoon puppet.
Final note: my packed Thursday-night IMAX theater crowd fucking ATE this up, never have I seen a movie and immediately suspected half the audience was gonna walk out with this as one of their new favorite movies. I don't really think this is going to happen, I dunno, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised if this is a serious Oscar contender next year, even a Best Picture contender. I suspect this film will stay in the conversation for the rest of the year, it's gonna get so much hate and so much love, backlash and backlash to the backlash etc. Last night I opened up letterboxd and flipped through recent reviews and the flood of 5-stars and people calling it one of their favorite movies was exactly what I expected. So many people are going to looooove love love this movie. And I say that with (almost) no judgment. Will be interesting and probably exhausting to see how its phenomenon grows