Everything Everywhere All At Once Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Starring Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis. Plugs: None Nearest: Cottonwood Mall.
Many years ago I worked at the top of Sandia Mountain. Specifically, I worked at High Finance restaurant, which —like many things from many years ago— is no longer there. I was a busboy, then a waiter, working my way though college. Many of the memorable characters there had previously worked at the Territorial House, later the Rancho de Corrales —which like HiFi— also is no longer there.
One of them was a fry cook named Brandon who, like most of the kitchen staffs I’ve worked with in various restaurants, was usually stoned.
When he did his job he was an agreeable guy, but what I mostly remember about him was his elaborate descriptions of his half-baked visions, dreams and hallucinations. His dreamlife blended thoroughly and agreeably with his “real” life, and in addition to being a stoner, he was a gifted storyteller. He’d regale co-workers with stories he’d seen in his head, and it was entertaining —for a while.
Dreamers relating their visions often take on a somber sincerity which is politely tolerated by their audience at least for while. It was especially urgent to Brandon not only because he enjoyed the attention but because he believed he was relating Deep Universal Truths to us. He himself didn’t always understand what the Spirit was revealing to him via drugs and dreams, but he assumed there must be some nuggets of wisdom in there somewhere amid his surreal visions and stories.
He felt a sort of obligation to tell others (including his oft-hapless co-workers forced to share a small dark tramway cabin with him for a 20-minute ride down the mountain after work) what he experienced.
Watching the new film Everything Everywhere All At Once reminded me a lot of talking to Brandon. The film opens in the cluttered chaos of a coin laundry family business. Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, an otherwise harried and unremarkable middle-aged Chinese-American woman navigating an unhappy marriage and quarrelsome family. Preparing for an imminent financial audit with Dierdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), she’s told by an inter-dimensional visitor that her help is desperately needed.
The basic premise is well-worn: an otherwise ordinary person in a mundane setting is contacted by a messenger from a parallel, hidden world and told he or she is the chosen one to fulfill a great destiny. This has been done a million times, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. In this case the mundane settings is a coin laundromat (and, if that’s still a bit too exotic for you, an IRS office) and the person is Evelyn.
The film plays with ideas borrowed from theoretical physics, some theories suggesting that it’s possible that there are multiple universes, and in those there may be different versions of ourselves leading alternative lives in their own worlds. It’s all speculation, of course, and has been fodder for countless films including several of the most recent Spider-Man films. It’s a fecund topic for fiction, though it can easily be used as a deus ex machina plot cheat for lazy writers.
Soon Evelyn is saving different worlds and meeting different versions of her family from different universes. Several subplots are thrown in for good measure, including Eveyln’s impending divorce and the blossoming gay relationship of her daughter. It’s got big themes including unrealized potential, personal identity, destiny and much more. With elements of Max Headroom, Inception, and Adaptation, the film is many things: operatic, kinetic, absurdist, surreal, entertaining and visually striking.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is the sort of film where the sooner you surrender to its nonsense the happier you’ll be. It defiantly —and for a while, successfully— revels in confusion and contradiction. The stuntwork is amazing, the cinematography is something to behold, and the actors are clearly enjoying the proceedings (Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis are both spectacular). And yet….
The problem is that with so many bounces around, so many last-second saves, there are no real stakes. It’s a sort of dream-within-a-parallel universe within a Matrix-like computer-generated reality within a… well, I lost count, but it all looks so stylish.
The film strikes me as the sort of project that looks to be wretched and unfilmable on paper, looks amazing and groundbreaking in previews, and ends up being something in the middle when actually experienced on the screen. Writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have a great eye for direction and a fun premise, but ironically, take themselves a bit too seriously in trying to offer something both silly and profound, but which comes off as mostly what philosopher Daniel Dennett called pseudo-profound “deepities.”
I’m pleased to report that —unlike Brandon’s rambling dreamstories— the ending does more or less come together in a satisfying conclusion, though, to be honest, I’d long since stopped caring.
The film runs out of both steam and ideas about an hour and a half in, leaving another 45 minutes of somewhat repetitive action. Everything Everywhere All At Once seems like the Special Extended Edition Director’s Cut that one might find on a blu-ray or DVD of a better, shorter film that I somehow missed.