The Disney Multiversion
As meta as EEAAO gets, it’s the old laugh-and-cry that gets ‘em
[Yay — time for my annual Oscar nominees review! All the Best Picture contenders reviewed between now and March 12! First up…]
Everything Everywhere All at Once begins with a living family portrait — the principals, the Wang family, laughing in slow motion at some karaoke event from inside what looks like a picture frame as winsome music plays. It’s followed by scenes that show how fractured and desperate the family really is. In a more realistic movie, this image would have probably been a still photo on a mantelpiece or a video that a character was playing, and it would certainly read as a lie or a sign of lost happiness, to be taken ironically.
But a sudden weird shift — the music twisting and then, with a click, ceasing, and the frame readjusting so that it looks more like a porthole or the lens of an ophthalmoscope, through which we enter the scene — suggests that’s not the only alternative.
So right out of the gate we’re seeing the fractal effect for which the movie is now famous, and also getting a hint that it’s not just a fun device for some really trippy scenes but also the way the story will be told. And that’s exciting all by itself. It’s as if the expressionist opening of Citizen Kane turned out to be the style of the whole picture.
Except that probably would have been horrible; Everything Everywhere All at Once is lovely. And at bottom, for all its modernist hocus-pocus, it’s also very old-fashioned.
The first scenes that follow are grim indeed: Evelyn, who runs both the family and the family laundromat business in San Fernando, ferociously if not effectively, is prepping for a visit from and party for her old-school father. The chaos around this is not cheerful; Evelyn is impatiently blowing off her husband, Waymond, who is gingerly trying to give her some unpleasant news, and badgering her daughter, Joy, not to reveal to Grandpa that she’s gay and has a girlfriend. Oh, and their business is being audited by the IRS.
Evelyn’s myopic over-achiever mentality, we learn, has led her through many broken dreams and left her with a faltering laundromat and a disappointing family who seem to have given up even trying to penetrate the misery in which she’s trapped. Waymond tells her not to worry so much about the party because her father will certainly see she’s “nurtured a happy family and a successful business,” but Evelyn scoffs: “That’s not what he’s going to see” —because she doesn’t see it either.
But then, in the elevator at the IRS office, Waymond suddenly stops time (by opening a gaily-patterned umbrella) and informs Evelyn he is not her husband but another “alpha-verse” version of him, and she has a choice: She can return to her meeting with the IRS auditor, or she can help him and his comrades defeat a “great evil” that is spreading through a network of alternate realities — the multiverse — and threatening to poison them all.
Evelyn doubts and squawks (“Can’t help you today! Very busy!”) but alt-Waymond sweetens the deal by showing her an “alternate life scan” that in a flash lays out her prior life choices like connecting stations in a train map — and that the connections she failed to make are, in the multiverse, still available to her if she decides to enter it. It suggests there’s a way out of the misery in which she’s trapped, and you can see the outlandish prospect overcoming her disbelief.
Evelyn deciding, while seated at the auditor’s desk, to accept this challenge and activate the launch sequence that alt-Waymond has given her (which begins by switching her left and right shoes) is like the house falling on the Wicked Witch of the West — it escalates the movie into magic: Time- and space-folding, martial arts battles, talking rocks, cooking raccoons, flexible baton fingers etc.
But for all the psychedelic accoutrements Evelyn’s trip tracks closely with the familiar Hero’s Journey template on which Hollywood has traditionally made bank, with its challenges and reversals and transformation. You might suspect at first the multiverse angle, through which all kinds of visually exciting supernatural weirdness is possible (The Spiritual Black Hole Everything Bagel! The ‘verse-jumping power of butt plugs!), is a cheat — when everything is so obviously made up on the spot, you don’t even have to begin to make sense.
But though the multiverse is full of tricks (for example, it turns out the whole family has alt-versions of themselves involved in the battle) it does have a consistent logic, because it’s really nothing more than Evelyn’s life — all her possible lives, the reasons she couldn’t live them, and the chance to make the life she is living happy. This Hero’s Journey is actually simpler than the many western and Star Wars and other variants because it’s meta — it’s actually taking place inside Evelyn — and maybe inside you, if you want to project yourself into her place.
Which is what Hollywood is all about, right? That’s why the movie is so popular. It’s common dream factory fare, but self-aware — tricky enough to be more interesting that the standard-issue myth quest, but old-fashioned enough to deliver the thrills. Alt-Joy, thus, is a supervillain turned nihilistic (and powerful!) by her mother’s bitterness; Evelyn doesn’t get it immediately (“You’re the reason our daughter doesn’t call anymore,” she yells at alt-Joy, “dropped out of college and gets tattoos!”) and has to figure it out (and fight it out) to create the necessary reconciliation — with Joy and also with her husband, whose kindness she must stop mistaking for weakness, and her father and even the auditor, both of whom she has underestimated — and, thus, with the multiverse.
Well, I told you it was old-fashioned. Also old-fashioned: Fight scenes that go on a long time but you don’t care because they’re cool, and a good 15-minute cry at the end.
All honor to all the craft categories. I was surprised at how many of the scenes cinematographer Larkin Seiple low-lighted, and how it didn’t dull the movie’s shine (and how much the colors reminded me of candy and old-fashioned theater gels). I think Son Lux’s hyper-eclectic score does as much as anything else to push the movie along. The acting is all world-class, and if you didn’t know Michelle Yeoh was a really-real star, now you know, but I give extra credit to Jamie Lee Curtis for finding the petty bureaucrat and the petty bureaucrat’s soul, and to that old trouper James Hong who finally got the good role and the spotlight and didn’t waste either.