Saturday, June 4, 2022

Movie Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once

In this sermon, an antisemitic, ignorant pastor who calls himself Brother Sean rants about why God hates video games. He used to be a gamer, but he quit a long time ago: "It was vain. It was stupid. It was a bunch of flashing lights."*

*Later, the pastor says has has a DVD player, which is better than a video game console because he can use it to watch YouTube. This is confusing for many reasons.

"Flashing lights" is a throughline Brother Sean returns to in the sermon, a two-word phrase that in his mind illustrates the idiocy of video gaming with the irrefutable force of a mathematical axiom. "That's what [video games] are," he says, "A bunch of flashing lights." And again, in fiery conclusion: "... it's a bunch of stupid, vain stuff. It's flashing lights on screens."

After I finished watching the 2022 film Everything Everywhere All at Once, I started reading its reviews. I'm happy I did, because reviewers found some wonderful turns of phrase to express the essence of that movie. I've seen the word "maximalist" a few times, which is indisputable. (I mean, it's right there in the title.) New York Times writer A. O. Scott came up with the delightful sequence "exuberant swirl of genre anarchy." Consequence's Clint Worthington wrote about its "dadaist absurdism and blink-if-you-miss-it pace." For The Guadian, Mark Kermode submitted "madcap invention and frenzied visual wit." IGN's Rafael Motamayor had the four adjectives "bizarre, gross, heartfelt, and honest" for us, while the Critics' Consensus section on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as "an expertly calibrated assault on the senses."

Don't get me wrong, I like all those words. They do a wonderful job of describing this movie. But for me, the core of Everything Everywhere All at Once is best captured in sermon. Everything Everywhere is a bunch of flashing lights. It's vain. It's stupid. It's flashing lights on screens. But here's something lost in Brother Sean's sanctimonious haste: flashing lights on screens are also some of the most compelling things humans have ever produced. For me, Everything Everywhere was a particular sequence of flashing lights that gripped me like few things I've ever seen.*

*Other notable titles: La vita รจ bella, Wolf Children, Homecoming King.

Early in the movie, a woman named Joy tries to communicate her sexuality to her senescent grandfather in awkward, mangled Chinese. Not knowing the word for "girlfriend", she falls short. Her mom Evelyn steps in and, unable to get past homophobic Chinese mores, fails to stand up for her own daughter. Joy is infuriated by her mom's betrayal and storms away, even though Joy can't say the words herself.

This is just one example of the how film uses language to highlight its characters' complex emotional lives. Another is the meticulously-crafted chaos of Evelyn's dialogue. She bounces from English to Mandarin to Cantonese -- often mid-sentence -- with effortless, rapid-fire pace. These transitions are highly intentional, but they don't sound engineered. They rang with an authenticity that brought me right back to my parents' living room.

A full movie later, Evelyn has gone through a hero's journey. She has deep insight into every possible facet of experience, which conveniently helps her work out her problems. It's no surprise when, at the film's climax, with every reason to abandon her mediocre life and broken family, with the full weight of existential despair on her shoulders, Evelyn chooses love and connection. And as she redeems herself in front of Joy, finally telling her father (Joy's grandfather) the truth, Joy does not forgive her.

"I'm tired," Joy says. "I don't want to hurt anymore and for some reason when I'm with you, it just hurts the both of us." Joy just wants to go, to be left alone. And Evelyn says, "Okay."

I was no longer watching Joy in that moment. I was her, and I've been her countless times before. I've lost track of how many times I've wanted to tell my parents I don't care how or even if they're bettering themselves. How I don't want to hear any more apologies or rationalizations. How I can't forget the suffering they caused. I want to tell them I'm tired, and being around them hurts the both of us, and I just want to be left alone.

But at the same time, I want to tell them I forgive them, even if I'm not sure I do. I understand how their upbringing shaped their choices, and I'm not bitter about the resulting harm. I'm doing beyond well on my own. I'm past healing, into thriving. I'll never fully understand them, they'll never fully understand me, and that's fine. I know they did the best they could. How could I hold that against them? 

More than wanting to say any of this, I want acceptance. I want to hear my parents say, "Okay." That's why seeing Evelyn do so was so cathartic. It was my life and more, all rendered in magnificent flashing lights.

Sadly, this is also where Everything Everywhere All at Once disappointed me. Because in the aftermath of Joy's rejection, Evelyn gives a second heartfelt speech about love and connection, and Joy relents. She collapses into her mother's arms in a tearful hug, and the painfully honest bittersweetness of the scene is drowned out in a saccharine deluge of total reconciliation.

However badly my parents might want reconciliation, I do not. I don't want grand speeches collapsing into tearful hugs. I want acceptance and understanding, but I also want to move on. Sometimes, happy endings are not compatible. By contriving them to align so tidily, Everything Everywhere becomes less real, regressing back into the generic universe of every other feel-good action movie. This is especially frustrating because Everything Everywhere has a whole multiverse at its disposal. There was such rich potential to tell a multitude of stories, and having them all end on such high notes killed that potential. If the endings had spanned the full spectrum of human experience -- if there had been a soaringly joyful one, an absurdly silly one, a mature bittersweet one, a deeply tragic one, and a mysteriously ambiguous one -- if there had been everything everywhere all at once -- I would have been a lot happier.

Hollywood's inability to divorce itself from less-than-perfect endings hurt the film again in the story of Evelyn's failing marriage. After decades of emotional neglect, her husband Waymond files for separation. I was excited at the potential here. It was a chance to fight back against the false notion -- especially prevalent among Chinese-Americans I know -- that divorce is the worst thing that can happen in a marriage, so disastrous as to be unthinkable. I don't buy that. Far worse is trapping yourselves and your children in a toxic, loveless union defined by daily routines of blame and abuse. I was looking forward to a story about how divorce, though undoubtedly tragic, can also be liberating and virtuous -- a mature way to move forward and start fresh. Instead, after a few intense hours culminating in a single grand moment, the spark between Evelyn and Waymond rekindles and she enjoys total romantic renewal. In real life, I don't see single grand moments undoing decades of strife and neglect. Which is weird, because I see it all the time in flashing lights.

Part of me sees the happy endings of Everything Everywhere All at Once as inevitable. It's a movie about Evelyn gazing into an incomprehensible multiverse, with all the vanity and stupidity that entails,* and nonetheless finding Joy, triumphantly emerging with an even stronger claim to hope and purpose. The movie's character arcs and themes demand these happy endings.

*One sequence of flashing lights features a supervillain laying the smackdown on security guards with two giant dildos, and that's not even the weirdest thing to happen in that scene.

But Everything Everywhere is not just a movie about triumph over existential dread. It's also a movie about being a first-generation Asian-American immigrant. It's about the vast linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers that alienate those immigrants from their children. So I couldn't help but feel like it's about me

It isn't, of course. Even though it's so close to my heart I could jury-rig it into a Pacemaker, Everything Everywhere All at Once is not about me. Sometimes, people do want total reconciliation. Sometimes, happy endings are compatible. Sometimes, when we gaze into the incomprehensible universe, we find joy gazing back. Especially when we're gazing at a bunch of flashing lights.

Here's a rare accomplishment these flashing lights can claim: By the time I'd spent 140 minutes with them, I identified with them so strongly that any divergence from my own lived experience felt wrong. They made me forget that the unique bittersweetness of my own life story isn't the only flavor out there. Vanity was in the theater, just not all on the screen.

It would be easy for me to decry Brother Sean's vitriol as vain and stupid. So I will. Almost everything in that set of flashing lights is beyond vain, beyond stupid. He raves about how Jews own Activision and Bill "population control" Gates wants to murder babies. Truly deplorable stuff. But as much as I hate to admit it, there were rare moments in his sermon when I found myself nodding in agreement. One was when he denounced the military "going into countries and killing people," how they indoctrinate soldiers to devalue human life. Violent video games aren't how they're doing that, but I support his antiwar sentiment nonetheless.
More relevant to his point, I have spent too much time playing video games. Brother Sean cites Titus 2:7, exhorting his congregation to "in all things [show] thyself a pattern of good works." I also strive to in all things show myself a pattern of good works, and video games have been an obstacle. The flashing lights can be so captivating they entice me to neglect my responsibilities, or sacrifice longer-term fulfillment at their altar.

I don't mention the specks of truth in Brother Sean's incoherent screed because I think we should take it easy on his ideas. They deserve every bit of condemnation we can muster. But when I think about how truth survives even in that rambling wasteland, I realize something interesting. While Brother Sean's sermon captured the soul of Everything Everywhere All at Once for me, the same also happened in reverse. When we gaze into the multiverse -- when we lose ourselves in that infinite, meaningless blur of flashing lights -- nihilism feels more than tempting. But he who fights monsters should take care lest he thereby see everything as monstrous. And if you gaze for long into the abyss, love and meaning also gaze back into you.

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