Monday, March 13, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Welcome to a special day-after entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

Well the 95th Academy Awards are in the history books, and as expected one film dominated the show, winning seven out of eleven trophies and becoming only the third movie to take home three Oscars for acting (the previous two being A Streetcar Named Desire and Network).  That film is Everything Everywhere All at Once, written and directed by Daniel Kwan (Westborough MA represent!) and Daniel Scheinert, a pair of Emerson College alumni who got their start in music videos and broke into feature films with 2016's Swiss Army Man.  I caught EEAAO in the theater when it came out last spring but inexplicably couldn't formulate a proper review of it.  I enjoyed it on the first viewing but at the same time felt sort of bombarded by it all (I mean it is right there in the title).  It was an unquestionably original and unabashedly creative premise, held together by some pretty great performances, but aside from that I wasn't really sure how to review or rate it.

Well this past weekend in prep for the Oscars I gave it another look (My wife hadn't seen it at all yet and by the end was moved to gushing, sobbing tears), and this time I liked it a lot more and found it profoundly moving.  Like so many films that throw a lot at you "all at once," this one really demands multiple spins to fully process it all.  Yet, almost paradoxically, in the end it's really about very simple, very relatable themes (particularly for those of us who are both someone's child AND someone's parent).

For those unfamiliar, EEAAO is the story of an Asian family that runs a laundromat.  The middle-aged, immigrant parents, Evelyn and Waymond (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, respectively), have begun divorce proceedings and are also being audited by the IRS for misreported business expenses.  Evelyn's relationships with both her judgmental, old-world father Gong Gong (James Hong) and her disillusioned daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) are contentious at best, and the combination of all these conflicts is tearing the family apart.  On the way to their meeting with IRS agent Dierdre Beaubierdre (an uproariously offbeat Jamie Lee Curtis), Waymond seems to glitch for a second before revealing that his body is now being controlled by a parallel universe version of Waymond.  "Alpha-Waymond" warns Evelyn that her universe is part of a vast, infinite multiverse (every choice each of us makes creates another parallel universe), which is in danger of being destroyed by the "alpha" version of their daughter.  Joy's alternate version Jobu Tupaki has created a singularity (in the form of a giant, black "everything" bagel) that could rip the entire multiverse to pieces, and it's up to this version of Evelyn ("Alpha-Evelyn" died years ago) to stop it.

Yeah, that's a way-out-there premise, and the Daniels have a lot of fun exploring zany surrealism and absurdist comedy, while also anchoring everything to a very grounded central narrative.  Unlike say Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which is meant to be interpreted literally - the characters are actually dealing with fractured parallel universes and trying to repair damage to the space-time continuum - EEAAO can be interpreted metaphorically, and numerous themes can be extrapolated from it.  One could argue Jobu's nihilistic objective is just a metaphor for Joy's increasingly all-consuming unhappiness in her relationship with Evelyn; their mother-daughter dynamic is so strained Joy at one point begs her mother to let them go their separate ways.  Alpha-Waymond's appearance/warning in Evelyn's universe can be read as a metaphor for Waymond's pleading with her to repair the damaged family unit before it's too late (In the "real world" he's just served her with divorce papers to try and make her see how loveless their marriage has become).

For all its chaotic wackiness, nods to classic martial arts films, hot dog fingers and verse-jumping, EEAAO is at heart a touching family drama about unaccepting parents and their damaged children, the consequences of the choices we all make, and a commentary on finding beauty, happiness and meaning in the seemingly pointless daily grind.  It even comments on society's intolerance toward neurodiversity, something Daniel Kwan has apparently struggled with.  In the acting department, the film boasts an understated career performance from Michelle Yeoh, plus three show-stealing supporting performances from Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis and especially Stephanie Hsu, who gets many of the film's best laughs but also its most heartbreaking moments.  

My only real criticism of the film is that its first hour is so loaded up with exposition and craziness it was bound to push impatient viewers away.  It's not until the second half that everything starts to make sense and the film's real objective becomes clear.  For the less diligent moviegoer I could see that being a turnoff; it certainly left me bewildered on the first go.  I'd probably have made some first-half trims to get the running time closer to two hours - 139 minutes is a long time to sustain such chaos - but that's just my take.

Overall though EEAAO is an incredibly inventive, ultimately quite relatable story with excellent performances from its Oscar-winning cast.  That its creators are only two feature films into their directorial partnership is kind of astounding given their command and confidence over material that easily could've gotten away from them.  It isn't my favorite movie of 2022 but it's absolutely one of the most thought-provoking and inspired.  Originality in Hollywood isn't dead yet.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.      

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