I Would Like to Gently Suggest that Perhaps Everything Everywhere All at Once is Just a Touch Overrated
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a good movie and I enjoyed it. It’s inventive, often quite funny, and a great portrayal of immigrant parents and their struggle to understand their first-generation child. For me, it’s a B+, a fun and spirited romp that gets a little worse when you think about it too hard.
But it is overrated. It’s breaking records with user reviews. It sits at a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, for whatever little that means. It’s been enjoying Oscar buzz ever since its premiere. It’s being called the greatest movie ever made. None of this is deserved; it’s just not that good. And more disturbingly for me, its fans are immensely defensive, doing the 2022 stan thing of hunting down critics and railing against them for hating joy, being racist, or otherwise failing to laud the movie to the required extent. Richard Brody’s negative review in The New Yorker was treated typically for criticism of this movie, where people either failed to understand or pretended to fail to understand what a review is. Here’s a fairly common response.
This kind of defensiveness has attended the film all year. And I get it; people appreciate the diverse casting and themes and are moved by its clumsy but deeply-felt emotions. But stan culture sucks, and trying to intimidate critics sucks, and Everything Everywhere All at Once is a good movie being sold by fans and critics like a great movie. I think a course correction would be a good thing.
The fundamental crime here is both overexplaining and making too little sense. From the moment that Evelyn’s husband switches to his Alpha form and starts explaining the universe’s rules to her, the movie is an essentially endless exposition dump. The concepts are hammered home again and again; the whole enterprise carries a desperate need to be understood. If this need is bad when it comes to the plot, it’s even worse when it comes to the themes. The characters are forever just telling the viewer what the movie is about, sometimes directly into the camera. Hell, in the rock scene, the themes of the movie are literally just written out on the screen. I understand that subtlety is not always the goal in art, and sometimes you need to be explicit about your message. But a girl likes to be bought dinner first, you know what I mean? This movie needs you to understand exactly what it’s saying all the time.
And yet! Despite its intense interest in explaining both the plot and the themes to you, neither make a great deal of sense. For all of the exposition dumping, the basic mechanics of the various worlds and how characters move between them remains unclear to me. The rules seem to be whatever the filmmakers want them to be at any given time. In particular, the basic reality that in the multiverse certain versions of people can die without issue does not sit squarely with the importance of certain particular versions of Joy or Evelyn. Nor is it clear which universe Jobu Tupaki comes from, or if she’s a combination of several…. Alpha Gong Gong is against Jobu Tupaki, and yet at some point the people who he’s had taken over to kill Evelyn (thanks for her refusal to kill Joy) fight alongside the forces of Jobu Tupaki. Why? It’s never explained, and the honest answer seems to be of the “timey wimey”-from-Dr.-Who. variety, which is to say, just whatever suits the story at any given time.
This isn’t merely a question of plot but of theme. What is the movie’s attitude towards the phrase “nothing matters”? It’s first expressed by Jobu Tupaki, and seems to encompass a nihilism we’re supposed to reject. But later, in the denouement, Evelyn says it. Fair enough, but you have to do the dramatic work of actually explaining how these perspectives are synthesized. Is letting Joy go good or bad? It’s suggested that it’s bad, as there’s a moment where we think Evelyn is going to do it that’s then reversed, and maybe that’s letting her into the everything bagel (itself a profoundly undefined symbol). But the larger plot of the movie would seem to suggest it’s good. The thing about this movie is that it has a built-in self-defense mechanism - hey, it’s everything, all at once! So any reading is valid, I guess. Groovy. When you make a movie that’s as all over the place like this one, you can always suggest that there’s a complexity the critics just don’t understand, and that any thematic defense of what’s happening is valid.
The other glaring problem is the film’s attachment to completely sincere bathos. EEAAO is a far better movie than the Daniels film Swiss Army Man, which takes an intriguing premise as far as it can go in the first 45 minutes and then just gets worse and worse and worse as the runtime drags on. EEAAO is consistently entertaining, buoyed by a real organic sense of energy and purpose that the earlier film lacked. But EEAAO is like Swiss Army Man in that both movies collapse into pure, ineffective sentimentality. The end of the latter film becomes a truly ill-advised commentary on suicide and hope, which the movie’s dramatic bones can’t possibly hold up. EEAAO’s sentimentality pretty much dominates the last third or so. When non-Alpha-Waymond makes a speech about how people are fighting because they’re scared and urging everyone to be kind, I winced hard the entire time. “Be kind”? That’s the film’s great message, worth bringing the action to a screeching halt for? It’s a cringey moment, and also guilty of the confusion I complained about above - it’s hard to see how that message connects with anything else in the movie. It seems like the Daniels just felt the need for a big emotional climax, and so in the midst of a fight that involved guys jumping onto buttplugs to gain magic powers, we get “just be kind.” Woof. Ultimately the movie’s a sentimental consideration of the power of family. Which is fine, but we get dozens of those a year.
Also, the fucking “Racacoonie” joke - less is more, you guys. That joke was funny the first time, and then it proceeded to get run into the ground again and again, in an apparent desire to wring every last ounce of comedy out of it they could. Every time they flashed to that universe again I shook my head.
All in all, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a fun, admirably-ambitious movie with a lot of funny moments that concerns a type of family we haven’t seen much of in American media. Its pretensions to sci-fi complexity would be more effective if they were taken less seriously; I don’t mind plot mechanics that don’t really work if there’s more of a sense that they’re not supposed to. And sentiment can be OK, too, if it’s earned dramatically and isn’t shoved down the throat of every viewer. If the theme of familial love was tight and focused and not vaguely adhered to a lot of unclear plot mechanics, or if it was expressed in a tight ten minutes instead of a long and sprawling hour, if I could get two separate fans of the movie to agree on exactly how its multiverse-hopping works - I could say Everything Everywhere All at Once was a great movie. Instead, it’s merely very good, which is good enough.
Isn't the elephant in the room that the minority representation inevitably results in grade inflation/affirmative action? If the immigrants in the film had been Polish the movie wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the attention and it wouldn't have nearly as rabid a fan base.
It is a B+ movie but the fact that no other blockbuster B+ movie has come out in the last couple of years is part of why people hype it up. A salad looks as tasty as a steak if all you've been eating is shit. The fact that movies in general suck now means that any movie that doesn't suck even a little will be graded on a curve and hyped to kingdom come. That and the weird internet stan stuff you touched on