Thursday, April 21, 2022

Mere Universe:

There’s little wonder why the multiverse is a concept everyone’s all in on these days. Who wouldn’t want to imagine there’s a slightly better version of reality just outside our reach? That’s clearly the juice giving the little sci-fi action dramedy Everything Everywhere All at Once its buzz. The picture has a mainstream Marvel-sized hook animating its wiggly, fanciful character-based scamper. With the likes of the latest Spider-Man, Marvel is just using the idea of parallel universe-hopping to smash their action figures together—and cross-promote, of course. Here co-writers and co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert use the comic book conceit as a stage for some great performers to act out while the style around them goes wild. It’s a hodgepodge movie of fun and varied styles. But it goes on and on, and achieves less and less. For all the giddy befuddlement and constant whimsical invention, it’s ultimately in pursuit of nothing more than a greeting card’s worth of insight and sentiment. Some audiences will walk out dazed, thinking they’re not smart enough to get it. They may be right. But others of us may catch on quick, and feel the grinding repetitions, and the gnawing void of nothingness at its center—sometimes literally visualized, a convenient metaphor.

At least it’s an actor’s showcase that’s not totally swamped by its concept. To the extent it hangs on to some understandable, and moving, ideas, it finds them in its cast. The solid center is Michelle Yeoh, the martial arts powerhouse—everything from Police Story 3 to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to a James Bond movie—who is introduced here as a harried proprietor of an aging laundromat. She buries her usual steely resolve and glamorous confidence in a disgruntled melancholy rut. It’s a good reminder that she does putting-on-a-false-front and indescribable-yearning as well as anyone. Her business is strained, her small apartment is stuffed with homey clutter, she’s being audited, her ailing father (James Hong) has flown in from China, her wishy-washy sweetie husband (Ke Huy Quan) is contemplating divorce, and her grown daughter (Stephanie Hsu) has brought her girlfriend (Tallie Medel) home. Yeoh and the others sell the early down-to-earth scenes’ introductory plate-spinning as the characters’ complications stir, culminating in the group turning up for a meeting with a frumpy auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) in a dreary cubicle. The cast sells the initial complications with heart and spirit—it’s a sly Sundance comedy bristling with fine character details and dilemmas, a story of first-generation immigrants and marriage and mid-life crisis and family stress and small business owners and a drive for acceptance of oneself and others. There’s much to admire in its setup.

But soon the hurry-scurry anything-is-possible of the hook erupts, and then starts to wear thin. Everything goes wild—everywhere, all at once—when Yeoh’s husband suddenly snaps to attention, inhabited by a warrior from Alpha Universe with a cryptic message. (Here’s where Quan’s performance, his first leading role since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, proves every bit as formidable, charismatic, and shape-shifting as Yeoh’s.) The screen fractures. Suddenly we’re in two worlds, and told the fate of all possible worlds hangs in the balance. Doubles of others are crawling out of the woodwork, converging on their divergent prey at the behest of a mysterious (and sassy) inter-dimensional supervillain intent on hunting Yeoh down. (She has her reasons.) This kicks off a flurry of capable action and attempted comedy that rarely lets up, as Yeoh hops through the skills and memories of all manner of possible hers. She’s a movie star, a chef, a sign-spinner, a martial artist, a maid, a woman with long, wiggly, frankfurter-shaped fingers, and a rock. In the process, though the meek laundress never leaves the IRS building, the action grows wilder and more elaborate as office supplies and stylistic surprises become weapons, gags, or, often, both. There’s some fun to be found as it hops around, and in its glimpses of other worlds the filmmakers clearly enjoy mixing up the look. I quite liked their Wong Kar-Wai-inspired step-printed tale of missed opportunity amid the neon lights of a theater district, and the flattest, driest jokes subtitled from the canyon of silence amid some stones. But I couldn’t shake the question of why, if this movie could go anywhere and do anything, it chose to limit itself to repetitive silliness. The joy of its invention grows thin when it finds no new notes to play after a while.

The Daniels, still best known for the beguiling bodily contortions and room-smashing dance moves of the “Turn Down For What” music video, if not the grotesquely cute ambulatory corpse fantasy Swiss Army Man, make full use of their visual imaginations. Bodies flip and flail, fantasy erupts and contracts, aspect ratios shrink and grow, and characters become doubled, tripled, quadrupled in personality and fashion sense. Along the way, the actors somehow never quite lose the throughlines that make their characters tick. (The noticeable affection between Yeoh and Quan goes a long way there.) It grounds the proceedings in something understandable, even while a concept that can go anywhere and do anything slowly reveals its genre constraints. The movie’s not interested in radical mind-sharing like the Wachowskis’ Sense8 or souls adrift in time and space like Cloud Atlas. But nor is its spirited, monotonous kung fu acrobatics interested in dumb chops and kicks. (The movie adores them to excess, gilding them with glitter and blood, even unto some tasteless anal retentive gags.) Instead, it’s an everything bagel of genre tropes pushed to the brink and emotionally narrow. As it drags on and on well past the two hour mark, finding only endless repetition of its bag of tricks, it draws to a climactic flourish of mawkish sentiment and bumper sticker philosophizing. Sure, it’s theoretically sweet to see the fate of the universe comes down to learning to love and accept friends and neighbors, and appreciating the life you have instead of the dreams you don’t, and just hugging your daughter and accepting her girlfriend because it’s the right thing to do. But for all the half-imagined sci-fi rigamarole, and the admirable work of a fine cast, you’d think it’d find conclusions that are as clever as they are self-impressed.

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