Thursday, January 26, 2023

Everything Everywhere . . . and the Kitchen Sink

The last time I saw a movie about the running of a laundromat, it was My Beautiful Laundrette. That 1985 British dramedy, an early film for both director Stephen Frears and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, had a lot to say about social relationships, particularly those involving culture clashes between native-born Londoners and immigrants from Pakistan. Everything Everywhere All At Once is also about immigrants who own a laundromat, but social realism is not exactly its genre. This hugely popular film, which now leads the pack with 11 Oscar  nominations, somehow combines an intimate family story with a bravura tale about saving the universe by way of martial arts derring-do.

 Everything Everywhere starts out matter-of-factly enough, with a frazzled Chinese immigrant named Evelyn Wang, played by the wonderful Michelle Yeoh. Evelyn is stressing about everything in her life: the state of the family laundromat, an obligatory birthday party for her ancient father (94-year-old movie veteran James Hong), her boyishly naïve husband (Ke Huy Quan, who once played a nerdy kid in The Goonies), and the fact that her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is in love with another woman. And then there are tax problems which require the family to meet with a mousy but stern IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis, having an absolute ball playing against type). It’s right in the middle of a tense meeting at IRS headquarters that Yeoh’s character discovers that the universe operates on multiple levels, and that she’s personally in charge of saving the world from evil. Say what? She’s not convinced, but suddenly her amiable husband is making impressive martial arts moves, using his dad-sized fanny pack as a weapon of war.

 From this point onward it’s a wild ride through the cosmos, with Evelyn alternatively overjoyed and terrified by her multiple selves, which include a woman warrior, a Chinese opera star, and glamorous movie queen. Yes, in her long Chinese film career, Michelle Yeoh proved she could be convincing as all of these things. I was surprised to learn that the film script for Everything Everywhere was retooled for her benefit; it was originally supposed to star Jackie Chan. But the male-to-female transition of the leading role allowed writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to explore a woman’s role both in a kung fu-style universe and in a domestic household, thereby giving their admittedly wild and crazy story some spine.

 Of course, not everyone has been a fan. Though film critics and chopsocky enthusiasts (not to mention members of the Academy) have shown their adoration for this highly original and skillfully produced entertainment, it can be hard for some of the rest of us to get with the program. I suspect there’s a huge generational divide involved: someone with whom I watched this film on my brand-new giant TV screen had a hard time finding any dramatic point at all within the film’s fun and games. (It does exist, I promise, but you may get restless—over a stretch of 2 hours and 19 minutes—while wading through bagel jokes, lightning-fast montages, and goofy parodies of other flicks in order to find some actual meaning at the story’s end.) The film can be seen as a bold homage to the entire history of cinema.  Or the entire history of pop culture. Or something like that. I do know, though, that my movie-viewing partner just came away from this experience feeling old and tired. Personally, though I love the artistic boldness that went into this concept,  I know exactly what he means.

 To Bernie—many happy cosmic returns! 



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