The 1990s represented a high-water mark for parallel-reality cinema. As well as Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors, The Matrix and Run Lola Run, there was Alain Resnais’s Smoking/ No Smoking, based on Alan Ayckbourn’s eight-play cycle Intimate Exchanges, in which 12 possible endings can be traced back to one character’s decision to smoke a cigarette – or not. The democratisation of the internet in that decade must have played a part in this narrative trend. Other existences were suddenly just a click away. Rabbit-holes were breeding like rabbits.
For the action-comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once, the writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have brought a hyperactive 21st-century approach to the concept by flitting between an innumerable number of parallel universes. If those earlier movies were shaped by the burgeoning possibilities of the internet, then the new film is unmistakably the product of a culture fluent in multi-screening, TikTok and the metaverse.
In one reality, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is sitting in the IRS office with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), surly teenage daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and disapproving father Gong Gong (James Hong), while the sceptical Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) conducts an audit of her laundromat business. But the action cuts between this universe and an adjacent one in which Deirdre is ripping a pipe from the wall with her hands before launching a flying kick at the cowering Evelyn. Welcome to Fighting/No Fighting.
Another Waymond, this one heroic rather than ineffectual, has crossed over into Evelyn’s ordinary reality– it’s called “verse jumping” – to enlist her help in vanquishing a grave evil. He comes hotfoot from the Alphaverse, the first universe able to link the consciousness of parallel incarnations of the same person. This is how Evelyn can be trying to justify her deductibles to one Deirdre while simultaneously having a dust-up in the broom cupboard with the other.
Evelyn is hardly prime warrior material – in other words, she’s no Yeoh, a martial arts legend who has been performing many of her own stunts since the 1980s. She has a precarious business and a failing marriage, and is so anxious about Gong Gong finding out that Joy is a lesbian that she risks alienating her daughter. (When they meet in a different reality, Joy is exasperated to encounter the same old baggage: “You’re still hung up on the fact I like girls in this universe?”) It is Evelyn’s unfulfilled potential which has led Waymond to her. “You’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything,” he says, sweetly converting insult into compliment.
The multiverse concept is all very flashy and modern but it inevitably lowers the stakes, especially during fight sequences (there are many). Waymond claims to have seen Evelyn perish thousands of times, but if everything is possible then no death is definitive. Nor can the directors convert into peril the threat posed by an alternate version of Joy, who has evolved into the nihilistic Jobu Tobacky (a possible reference to film-maker and alleged #MeToo offender James Toback). Over-stimulated by verse-jumping, Jobu has concluded “nothing matters”, and tries to tempt Evelyn into giving up the fight by entering the swirling black hole of a giant bagel. (It’s that sort of film.)
In lieu of an actual villain, the picture’s real bogeyman is social breakdown. “Our institutions are crumbling,” says Waymond. “Nobody trusts their neighbour any more.” He insists that the mission of the Alphaverse is to get things back to how they were. The more you hear about this place, the more right-wing it sounds. No wonder Evelyn admonishes Jobu for stubbing out her cigarette on a cop’s badge: “Show some respect!” she gasps. Did the film-makers not notice what was happening in their country while they were making the picture? No one expects a multi-million-dollar movie to advocate defunding the police, but this is surely the opposite of reading the room.
A great deal of energy and talent has been expended here on the idealisation of the family unit, and the quest for a United States that never existed. The concept of anti-climax takes on a whole new meaning when you’ve reached the end of an irksomely zany 140-minute movie, stuffed with wacky ideas that the makers couldn’t bear to throw out (frankfurter fingers, sentient rocks, deadly dildos), only to find that its philosophy amounts to: Cheer up, be kind, and call your mother once in a while.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is in cinemas
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer