24 Lies a Second: Multiversal Soldier

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Multiversal Soldier

There are a number of noteworthy and unusual things about Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by 'Daniels' (this is the working name for the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert); the film has apparently done unexpectedly well across a long and carefully-managed release, it is an (almost unprecedented) star vehicle for a leading lady a quarter-century on from her turn as a Bond girl; and there is the simple fact that the film is so damn weird. What is not so noteworthy or unusual is the film's theme, which concerns an infinite multiplicity of closely connected parallel worlds and the main character's perception of them. This is pretty standard story material at the moment, oddly enough.

Michelle Yeoh, whose star has waxed impressively in the last five or six years despite her appearing in some (to my mind) decidedly iffy projects, plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to America who has devoted her life to running a not especially successful laundrette with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, making what is surely one of the most impressive comebacks in recent years). But her relationship with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and father (James Hong, a veteran actor with a remarkable CV) is not good.

Worst of all, the business is being audited by the IRS, requiring all of them to go to the local tax office and contend with a not entirely sympathetic official (Jamie Lee Curtis). But strange things begin to occur as they arrive: Waymond in particular starts acting very oddly, writing strange notes to Evelyn giving her rather peculiar instructions. When she eventually follows them, she finds her consciousness transported into the janitor's closet, which contains another version of her from a parallel universe. Or is the whole closet in another parallel universe? (It's probably best not to worry too much about this kind of minor detail – and the thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once is that which universe the characters are in at any given moment really does constitute a minor detail.)

Well, it turns out that a parallel-universe version of Waymond is looking for Evelyn; or, to be exact, looking for an iteration of her with the potential to defeat a tyrannical multiversal despot named Jobu Tupaki ('You're just making up noises,' complains Evelyn when told of this, not unreasonably). Jobu Tupaki has created a bagel with the potential to destroy the infinity of the multiverse (I promise you that this really is the plot), which interested parties are obviously keen to stop.

Fairly soon parallel-universe minions of Jobu Tupaki and members of other factions are possessing the bodies of their counterparts in Evelyn's universe, intent on causing her some mischief, and so it falls to her to borrow the skills of some of her other iterations in order to fend them off (given Yeoh's pedigree in Hong Kong action cinema you can probably imagine how this turns out). But what is the secret of Jobu Tupaki and can the apocalyptic bagel be neutralised before the whole of creation suffers?

Having just read that back I am aware that Everything Everywhere All At Once sounds like one of the stupidest, or at least most bloody-mindedly whimsical films ever made – and it does contain many moments which are finely-crafted pieces of absurdism and surrealism: quite apart from doomsday baked goods, there are transcendental paper cuts, dialogue scenes between rocks, and people doing things with trophies that defy genteel description. Not for the first time, the essentially cautious nature of the Marvel project is thrown into sharp relief by a smaller movie – the Dr Strange sequel suddenly looks very restrained indeed compared to the relentless frantic daftness of this film, both of them of course playing the idea of a multiplicity of parallel worlds. (What briefly resembled a spat between the two films on Twitter is rather peculiar given that talent both behind and in front of the camera on Everything Everywhere All At Once has been involved in Marvel Studios projects.)

It's not quite as arbitrarily silly as it sounds, for there are rules and reasons for nearly everything that happens. What it really feels like, and I'm aware I don't usually like this kind of reductionist comparison, is The Matrix blended with an offbeat indie comedy-drama: the kung fu stuff is great, even if it is quite daft, there's a fairly solid rationale behind it all (though you do have to hang on really tight to keep track of all of the plot), and – somehow – underpinning everything is a relatively serious story about a woman coming to terms with her life and her relationships with her family.

It takes a while to get here, naturally, and one of the criticisms I'd make is that the endless possibilities that the film explores turn out to be just a bit too endless: I'd say it was about 15-20% too long, with most of the fat coming in the second and third acts. There are still some good jokes and inspired ideas, but I found myself flagging as the film bounced through yet another new take on its characters and concepts without much going on in the way of forward motion.

This being, at least in part, a film about the Chinese-American experience, it's not entirely surprising that it eventually resolves as a kind of family saga – this is one of those films where colossal mayhem and an apocalyptic threat proves to be mainly a pretext for the protagonist to sort out their domestic relationships. But it's a bit deeper than that – not for the first time with a story about infinite parallel lives, it tackles concepts of existentialism and nihilism – if you can have or be everything, then ultimately you reach a point where nothing means anything. I'm not entirely convinced by the film's solution to this particular philosophical quandary, but it at least does present some kind of answer to it.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is the kind of film which looks brilliant and inspired in the trailer; the challenge is how to take such a soaringly high concept and turn it into a functional and satisfying narrative. The Daniels do a pretty good job with it, in the end, although this is not a film which is especially strong on coherence. Nevertheless, there are so many good individual bits to enjoy that I am very happy to overlook the flaws in the overall story. It's a mad and challenging film, but I mean that in the most positive way.

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