Wednesday 25 May 2022

In the mood for lolz: "Everything Everywhere All at Once"

The responses to
Everything Everywhere All at Once within my social circle and on my social-media feeds have been 98% wildly enthusiastic, with an intriguing 2% margin of bemused bafflement. I suspect this is because the film itself runs on excitability, a splurgey, indiscriminate, fanboyish enthusiasm that insists on leaving it all up there on the screen. Faced with a live-action Lego Movie such as this, one that depends upon the viewer finding its every competing image and reality awesome, anybody taking a wrong turn - not quite getting on the film's wavelength, or not quite being in the mood for it - is liable to find themselves lost and left behind, and/or wondering what all the fuss has been about. The finale - or one of its finales, I should say - unfolds in a vast workspace caught amid a minor whirlwind of papers being tossed into the air, a more or less unimprovable visual metaphor for the film's own scattershot conception and realisation. Here, the filmmaking collective known as Daniels - writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert - make one last attempt to gather up and gather together the approximately 1,001 skits that have somehow ended up in the same movie, in much the same frantic manner as contestants chasing the confetti in The Crystal Maze's climactic geodesic dome. Your own mileage cannot fail to vary - scene by scene, reality by reality - but no matter how well you think Everything Everywhere All at Once works, it shouldn't work nearly as well as it does.

That it does - or that it did for this viewer, at least - is down to two focal points. In its eternal favour, the film has Michelle Yeoh, literally leaping at the kind of role the movies denied her for twenty years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and a really good, anchoring joke, about a woman who keeps getting distracted from the humdrum reality of doing her taxes - or one who would rather go anywhere and do anything (save the universe, even) than sit down and do her taxes. Even in the film's early, notionally sensible monoverse, it's clear Yeoh's Evelyn has A Lot On: running a laundromat, caring for an aged father (James Hong), fielding divorce papers from her ex Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and hosting her slightly estranged daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her new partner Becky (Tallie Medel), not to mention dealing with an unexplained infestation of stick-on googly eyes. (The implied gag, and this too is a good one, is that nobody is better prepared to deal with the strains of entering the multiverse than a working mother.) This opening stretch has the feel of 2019's The Farewell on fast-forward (literally, in the case of a montage showing how these characters got here): a fond if frenetic portrait of a fraught, in some places visibly frazzled Asian American family dynamic. (The Daniels even lean into the manic quality of the Mandarin and Cantonese their characters converse in; that sense of too many syllables being crammed into too short a space of time.) Then, with a boom and a pop and a fizz, Evelyn enters the multiverse, the film starts scrambling, and the mind begins to boggle, on its way - the filmmakers hope - to being blown.

Mine was in places, though my rational self also feels compelled to note that Everything Everywhere All at Once might actually be a more conventional movie than the Daniels' 2016 breakthrough Swiss Army Man, which had Paul Dano trying to escape off a desert island, using flatulent corpse-turned-human lilo Daniel Radcliffe. That was as out-there as it still sounds, for better and worse; EEAAO proceeds according to the multiverse concept that was floated in such millennial landmarks as The Matrix and Run Lola Run, and became familiar long before Marvel's Doctor Strange sequel, with which the Daniels find themselves competing for multiplex space. Where the mind starts expanding at least is that the new film, made for a relative pittance, shows us so much of its multiverse. A universe where Michelle Yeoh is effectively being Michelle Yeoh (replete with footage of real-life red carpet walks). A universe where the leading lady has no fighting skills whatsoever; one where she does exactly what you want to see Michelle Yeoh doing on a big screen, including beating up on Parks & Recreation's peerlessly annoying Mona-Lisa. There is a universe where these characters have hot dogs for fingers, cueing a rethink of Kubrick's 2001; another where there exists a film called Raccacoonie, which is Ratatouille with a raccoon; another populated solely by talking rocks. One universe suggests Yeoh and Quan have passed into a Wong Kar-wai reverie; another a Tarsem Singh movie, a reference destined to be picked up by even fewer folks in the back row of the Cineworld.

This, too, is A Lot, but it's also a familiar tactic, the handiwork of emergent cineastes (and cinephiles) showing off just what they can do across a variety of different genres, and on a fraction of Doctor Strange's catering budget. The Daniels appear to have some kinship with MAD magazine's Scenes We'd Like To See feature, frequently spitballing for no greater reason than shits and giggles: we've all seen the scene where some evil mastermind manipulates one cop into shooting another, but only EEAAO has the scene where the cop shoots a colleague who's dressed like Carmen Miranda. Why? Well, why not? It should be said that, on a first viewing at least, the connections between the film's universes appear arbitrary in the extreme; we have to take the rules of this multiverse on faith. One reality is accessed by swiping a document in the gaps between your fingers, as one would a credit card in one of those old card readers, but this is one of several ideas the Daniels throw at the screen without returning to it or following it up. When, amid the chaos of the third act, Evelyn tells one unknowing manifestation of Waymond "it's going to be so hard to explain any of this to you", she's clearly speaking on behalf of the filmmakers to their intended audience.

And yet, purged of any gassy exposition, the film stands as a pretty dazzling demonstration of what's still possible when a movie isn't taking itself ultra-seriously, when everything is temporary and no explanations are necessary. The overwhelming joy (and relief) I felt when sat before Everything Everywhere All at Once stems from the fact it can't get bogged down, because there's nothing really for it to ever get bogged down in; forsaking the phoney depth of the modern blockbuster, the Daniels instead fill their characters with streamers and bound from one inspired surface to the next. (Note how much meaning is conveyed by simple changes of costume: the film's closest DNA match isn't with the dourly dogged worldbuilding of franchise cinema, but a playbox classic like Mr. Benn.) One thing I don't quite understand about the 2% of negative responses has been their faint tenor of grumpiness: even if you do get lost here - and I did, frequently - this is such a fun movie to get lost in, because you never know what's coming up around the next corner, and even its non-sequiturs and dead ends number among the most inventive you'll witness in a multiplex screen this year. 

The pandemic launched a flotilla of thinkpieces wondering whether the American cinema would soon re-enter a wartime footing and provide beleaguered filmgoers with uplift and escapism, seeing in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Spielberg's West Side Story a ready parallel with those entertainments the studios laid on for audiences emerging from WW2. For whatever reason, those movies came and went without trace, leaving us instead with Dune: Part One, The Batman and the ongoing threat of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, major motion pictures that suggest the world is (not without reason) depressed as all get out. Against the entrenched misery of this backdrop, Everything Everywhere All at Once appears more than faintly radical, as a light in the dark sneaking in from an adjacent movie-universe. If we can take anything of significance away from the Daniels' first two films, it's that they are utterly committed to their own silliness - to pursuing a larky idea for the sake of pursuing a larky idea, as so much cinema did during its golden age. EEAAO's sleeper success, which may only have been possible at a time when the bulk of our studio releases present with po-faced pomposity, leaves this duo better placed than just about anyone to slap googly eyes on the screen and - at long last - make movies fun again.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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