Friday, June 10, 2022

Headtrip: Everything Everywhere All at Once

from left: Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Theories of the multiverse go as far back to ancient Greek philosophy, though we associate them today with the hard sciences. Part of the discussion, historically, involves speculation about whether ours is the best of all possible worlds. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (one of the most important early modern philosophers) made this idea the cornerstone of his work The Monadology. There, the German polymath addresses theodicy, or the problem of evil. He speculates that the world we inhabit must be the best of all possible worlds, since God – who is good and who could have chosen to make any world he wished – made this one. The presence of evil, then, must have some mysterious, salutary effect – perhaps contrasting goodness for us, so we appreciate it all the more. In a world without evil, he surmises, we wouldn’t be able to recognize goodness, since it would just be the banal, uniform state of affairs. A fish doesn’t notice water unless it’s thrown on land.

Leibniz’s reasoning was subjected to many critiques in his own time and after, and at some level it fails to satisfy you. Thousands die in an earthquake so I can appreciate the benefit of reinforced concrete? Yet his overall point is one shared by the Bible: we don’t need another, better world. The reality we have, the existence we’ve been given, is beautiful enough. We just need to see it with the right perception. The problem is not the world – it’s our relationship to it. “Stay awake,” Jesus implores his disciples, which calls to mind the insights of Buddhism about mindfulness. Enlightenment isn’t about becoming God or fleeing to another dimension. It’s about an inner change in which we regard life with gratitude and move through it with generosity. The greatest works of art bring us to this emotional conversion. When we have those moments in which everything seems wondrous, we want to live in them forever.

Everything Everywhere All at Once, from writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, is not a great work. But it’s a warm, exhilarating film in which the creative team succeeds at marrying the multiverse concept with a family drama that conveys Leibniz’s concepts. The clamorous pair of directors are drawn to black comedy and the absurd. Their previous collaboration, Swiss Army Man (2016), is a stoner picture in which Paul Dano plays a marooned young man named Hank who turns a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) into a kind of magical, grotesque utility belt. You had to be high to get that film, but here the pleasures are all-natural. Michelle Yeoh (who, a quarter-century after being a Bond girl, still hasn’t lost her charms) stars as Evelyn Wang, a Chinese-American woman who runs a laundromat with her meek husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Evelyn faces multiple crises when we meet her: the IRS has audited her business; Waymond wants to serve her divorce papers; her demanding father, Gong Gong (James Hong), is in town; and her morose daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), seeks the family’s acceptance for her and her white girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel). 

Things become surreal at an appointment with the IRS, when Waymond’s personality suddenly changes during an interrogation by Inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra (a brassy Jamie Lee Curtis). Unbeknownst to Beaubeirdra, he suspends Evelyn’s attention and explains to her that he’s Alpha Waymond, her husband from another dimension in which the people have developed the ability to “verse jump,” or travel through parallel universes by accessing the memories, skills, and bodies of their alter egos. He’s come to Evelyn because the multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki (formerly Alpha Joy), whose mind was split by Evelyn’s corollary, Alpha Evelyn. Jobu now experiences all universes simultaneously and can verse jump and manipulate matter at will. Attaining omnipotent status, she seeks to suck all reality into her bottomless pit of despair, which she manifests as a giant, black-hole bagel (yes, a bagel). Alpha Waymond believes that Evelyn can mine her untapped potential to destroy Jobu Tupaki and save all. Soon she harnesses the power to verse jump and begins battling Jobu and her minions. 

That sounds trippy, but if you buckle up and surrender, Kwan and Scheinert keep things both zany and coherent as they whip you around the multiverse. The film is hyperactive and breathless. The directors deploy many kinds of comic devices, including verbal and physical slapstick, cultural cross-references, and endless sight gags. The wonder of the film lies in its ability to stack up multiple universes in your mind – each with its own internal dynamics – while staying tethered to the characters and their unique arcs. The cast fires on all cylinders, getting the style of each universe right, matching their costume changes, and retaining emotional truth throughout. This is The Matrix without all the self-seriousness and pseudo-gnostic Christianity. 

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Along the way, you’re treated to some of the most pleasurable martial arts sequences put on screen. Kwan and Scheinert send up the karate genre and play off Yeoh’s star turn in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2002) in these combat interchanges. In order to verse jump, the characters must activate a kind of channel, which involve triggers like self-inflicted paper cuts or, most outrageously, turning office supplies into butt plugs. Once they do, wild powers come their way. Waymond thrashes a bevy of security guards with a fanny pack-turned-nunchaku. At one point, Evelyn bests her foes by obtaining knowledge of kung-fu pinky – you read that right. Watching the directors ratchet up the comic stakes with each frame thrills you – you have no idea what’s coming next. 

The core of the story involves Evelyn trying to reach Joy, with the interdimensional battle serving as a metaphor for the Freudian mother-daughter relationship. Along the way, Evelyn catches glimpses of her life in other universes. In one, people have floppy hot dogs for fingers and she and Beaubeirdra are lovers (Curtis’s ubiquitous appearances are a running joke, akin to Alec Guiness’s multiple deaths in 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets). In another, she’s a chef at a hibachi grill where her colleague’s controlled by “Raccoon Ratatouille” (I’m not making this shit up). Alpha Waymond tells her she’s the most failed version of Evelyn there is, and she believes it. She’s sick of her husband, and she sees how much better her life could be if she’d never married him. In her favorite alternate universe, she’s a glamorous film star, with Waymond a dashing fellow actor. 

But it’s this very self-pity that Jobu wants everyone to feel – the whiny, wallowing black hole that implodes on itself. As Evelyn gives into this perspective, the multiverse goes to hell. Her journey becomes one of self-transformation, in which she realizes that the point of life is to generate creative energy through love – energy that ripples outward and reconstitutes reality. That sounds trite, but the film acts a bit like a psychedelic trip, in which the most basic insight – love is the center of the universe – takes on a felt impact through the noetic quality of the audio-visual spectacle. 

The movie makes Evelyn’s acceptance of Joy’s same-sex attraction the crux of the matter, which actually cheapens the insight. Do we really need, in 2022, yet another film about a parent learning to love her gay child? At this point, that theme’s been done to death. But Everything Everywhere All at Once succeeds at something cleverer: it turns the multiverse experiment on its head. No matter where Evelyn goes, she finds herself with the same family, the same people, the same problems. In this way, the movie captures the sense that our relationships define our reality. Every person you pass on the street lives in her own universe, with a unique matrix of experiences, people, ideas, horizons, meanings, tools, etc – what the phenomenologist philosophers call the ‘life-world.’  To enter into someone else’s life-world would be as disorienting and fantastical as to jump to another universe. 

Which means the reverse holds true: our individual, humdrum existence is extraordinary. Sometimes you look at your child or spouse or even yourself and you think, “Who is this person? How did we get here?” When that happens, the mystery of being stands before you, even on an ordinary Tuesday at the office. As Evelyn comes to this insight, she changes her orientation to life. Suddenly, the most failed version of her existence stands forth as suffused with plenitude. We’ll never know if we live in the best of all possible worlds. But when we see it right, it’s all we want. 

– Nick Coccoma is a writer and culture critic. His newsletter, The Similitude, is available on Substack and you can follow him on Twitter @NickCoccoma. His essays on movies, religion, and politics have been featured in Full-Stop Magazine, New Politicsand The Washington Examiner. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as a teacher, hatter, and chaplain.


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