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I walked into my AMC theater in Arlington, Virginia feeling rather miserable. I was behind on a few writing projects, with no stable 9-5 job, and mountains of work still to do. In spite of that, I had somehow still managed to spend my Tuesday watching YouTube and scrolling TikTok. I was stuck in one of those “stressed because I have to do work, but can’t do work because I’m too stressed, so I’ll just look at things on the Internet instead.”
A real Catch-2022.
I went to the movies, as many do, to escape that reality. Surely, what I needed was to defer responsibility for just a little bit longer, because, when I returned from the theater, I would have gained some new insight that would jolt me into clarity. Of course, I knew this was a lie. I just wanted to get out of the apartment for a moment, see a fun movie, and hopefully distract myself for a couple of hours more. So I took my “small” lemonade, found my seat, and sat as the lights began to dim for some movie with a strange name: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once.’
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Basically, the film follows Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese American laundromat owner who just can’t seem to finish her taxes. She’s stressed about her father visiting, her daughter’s (Stephanie Hsu) self-esteem issues and girlfriend, her pushover husband, Waymond, who’s filing for divorce, and Jobu Tapaki, the omnipotent supervillain seeking to conquer the multiverse. If one of those seems out of place, I assure you The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) who wrote and directed the film, do more than just convince you that Jobu Tapaki is just as much a part of finishing your taxes as anything else.
On their way to the I.R.S., Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) suddenly becomes Waymond from an alternate universe, where he is searching desperately for the version of Evelyn Wang that can defeat Jobu Tapaki, the most powerful being in the multiverse. Evelyn, as it just so happens, is the “Chosen One,” and she alone can draw upon the necessary skills from her infinite number of alternate lives to rival Tapaki. What ensues is a chaotic, colorful, hilarious, violent, referential, genre-bending, high-octane, Postmodern experiment, the ambition of which never before brought to the silver screen. I’ll be honest: when I first saw the direction the movie was headed in — down a rabbit hole of multiverses and you’re-just-one-of-many-you’s theory — I was disappointed. I didn’t go to the movies to have a smug, self-aware asshole tell me I was an insignificant fleck of dust in an infinite multiverse. That exact feeling was the thing preventing me from working in the first place. I needed motivation, not cosmic discouragement. Then, slowly, miraculously, it turned into more than just a Postmodern spectacle. It became something entirely new.
Postmodernism and the Internet Age
Postmodernism is almost impossible to define. It’s kind of the point, but most people know it when they see it. Having been around since the late 60’s, Postmodern work is usually associated with being ironic and detached, self-aware and referential. Margaret Atwood, a noted Postmodern author herself, emphasizes randomness, fragmentation, irony, humor, self-awareness, and knowledge of common genre tropes in her definition. Films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ are postmodern classics, skewing notions of time and space while incorporating contemporary cultural information. The best example is from ‘Monty Python,’ when King Arthur is arrested by the contemporary British police force, so the quest for the Holy Grail just… ends. The whole story culminates in a preposterous joke, rendering the whole movie meaningless and absurd.
‘Everything Everywhere’ wades all the way into absurdity.
Most notably, The Daniels wield an exhaustive knowledge of modern cinematic and internet tropes, making every scene a reference to a movie you’ve seen or heard of. Then, in order to access the power of the multiverse, one must perform a random act that reroutes your universe into another. It causes Evelyn and countless other “verse jumpers” to chew used gum and sodomize themselves with trophies.
One scene that includes a botched reference to ‘Ratatouille’ results in a timeline where a raccoon guides a hapless hibachi chef to culinary success. In another, Evelyn and the I.R.S.agent, played by an exasperated Jamie Lee Curtis, are lovers in a universe where fingers are hot dogs. In one scene, characters become semi-animate rocks in a universe where life never formed. Next, Evelyn is a piñata at a children’s birthday party being whacked with sticks.
It’s overwhelming. It’s absurd. It’s every movie you’ve ever seen and nothing like any of them. It’s riotously entertaining, and Postmodern to its core. Or so you’d think.
Then we discover that Jobu Tapaki is actually Joy, Evelyn’s daughter. Yes, teenage, Gen Z Joy — or at least a version of her. Due to childhood experiments done unto her by an alternate version of Evelyn, Tapaki possesses unlimited power over the multiverse, though she’s cursed to be aware of all her different selves simultaneously. Her curse, to be everything, everywhere, all at once, fuels her malicious takeover. And she leads the hero Evelyn to the conclusion that started it all, having seen every universe for what it truly is: nothing matters.
It hit me. Joy, like me, is living in the Internet age. It’s the world so many of us live in now. It’s a constant barrage of self aware stimuli clamoring for your attention all at once.
Though we’re only just beginning to understand its effects, it’s understood among those who grew up in the internet age that social media and its attendant culture has affected us in significant ways. Apart from obvious downsides like fractured attention spans and mental health contagion, social media culture puts every one of its users into a single, if broad, context. It has largely homogenized our cultural awareness, meaning there is almost nothing an avid Twitter user in Seattle knows that one in Alabama doesn’t. It’s unprecedented, but for young people who have been on Instagram since the 6th grade, it’s a presupposition. To some degree, we all feel sewn together in one big, pixelated fabric of the Internet. We are each a unique piece of stitching of the same cloth. Everyone’s aware of each other’s presence, but more importantly their own presence as part of that fabric. On social media, everyone is each other’s entertainment, because we know all the same movies, the same memes, etc. To be a part of it is to be everything and everywhere, all at once. And yet, somehow, none of it matters.
Young people live the Postmodern condition, of producing and consuming meaningless content, randomized by an algorithm designed to keep your attention. Joy, ironically named, embodies this very condition as the supervillain: a powerful force intent on convincing you that nothing is worth caring about because existence is meaningless.
Joy (a.k.a Tapaki), with the multiverse conquered, unleashes an abyss of Postmodern nihilism (depicted in the movie as an everything bagel) that will effectively destroy herself and all life.
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But then something revolutionary happens: a mother steps in. Against all rational thought, against all possible outcomes in the multiverse, Evelyn achieves the same power of Jobu Tapaki and uses it to pull her daughter back from the abyss, ceasing its power. She has looked into the abyss of her daughter’s experience, understood it, and found a way to love it. Soon, they’re back in a laundromat, and Evelyn embraces Joy. Of the infinite possibilities of lives she could live, she just wants to be with her daughter in the world where she just can’t seem to do her taxes. Now though, taxes seemed like a gift. This life is enough worth living for. It always was.
When I left the theater, I stopped by the restroom. Nearby, four girls my age who’d been sitting near me during the movie were huddled in the entrance of the girl’s room, sobbing and hugging. In the men’s room, two friends were slapping each other on the back in appreciation of one another.
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ did not just look into the abyss. It became it: the raccoon, the hot dog hands, the trophies. It embodied the very absurdity of existence, of existence in the Internet age. Then miraculously, like Evelyn, emerged victorious.
In the end, Evelyn does do her taxes. I went home and got some work done, too.
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Hu Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Tallie Medel, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Andy Le, Brian Le, Audrey Wasilewski, Sunita Mani, Daniel Scheinert
Director(s): Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Producers: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Mike Larocca, Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Jonathan Wang
Cinematographer: Larkin Seiple
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.