March 15, 2023    AmericaArtsReview

Film Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once

If you are wondering how films like Everything Everywhere All at Once can win the Oscar for “Best Picture,” you are not alone. And, if you feel scared of saying anything, let me say it for you: It’s one of the worst films I’ve seen in my whole life. The only reason I tortured myself to stick with it for two hours and twenty minutes was to earn the right to criticize it. I don’t know where to begin, but let me start with what everyone notices at first.

It is partly an Asian immigrant story. If you are an Asian high school student or a parent of one, you’d know that college admissions advisors steer you away from writing college essays about overcoming immigrant challenges because admissions officers are sick of reading them. Apparently, the Academy is not. A cliche theme can be good if it has a unique substance, but Everything Everywhere does not enlighten us of any new aspects of the challenge.

A parent who cannot accept their children’s homosexuality is also a cliche. The idea already has culturally shared emotions attached to it. It’s like the word “Holocaust”; when you hear it, you are reminded of familiar stories and strong emotions. The word alone tells a story. The idea of a mother rejecting her daughter for being gay also has readymade emotional substance. But, today in America, even the Republican National Convention accepts homosexuality. If we were watching a white family deal with this conflict, we would be wondering why we have to regurgitate such an old issue. The only reason we watch it as something a bit different is that it’s an Asian family, but ultimately, it’s just a portrayal of an Asian stereotype—of Asia being ideologically behind the West—that the film is propagating.

The mother-daughter relationship, or more specifically, the parental fear of letting go, is another theme of the film, but the film is too busy entertaining us with slapstick comedy that it never reaches enough depth to offer new insights.

The kung-fu action scenes are utterly irrelevant to the story, yet it spends what feels like half of the film showing us a montage of cliche acrobatics. Unlike The Matrix or Kill Bill, Everything Everywhere made no original contribution to the genre. The moments I was supposed to laugh were obvious, but I couldn’t eke out so much as a grin. I laughed only because these scenes were absurdly pointless. It comes across as obligatory as if having Asians in film and not having any kung-fu actions would be denying the American audience.

The major theme of the film is “multiverse,” or parallel universe. It is an old idea but a buzzword now for some reason. Just as the idea of the Holocaust has built-in emotional weight, the word “multiverse” has built-in sophistication. But for an artist to rely on readymade cultural significance is cheating. The concept has just enough air of sophistication to silence those who don’t quite understand it, and they are tempted to act as if they do. And, there lies the possibility of the emperor wearing no clothes. The lack of conceptual understanding compels some to assume there is a substance they are not appreciating. To be safe, they parrot what everyone else is saying about the film. 

Everything Everywhere explained the concept but did not tell us any original story based on it. It is merely a gimmick. Now, what exactly is a gimmick? It’s a cleverness that conceals the lack of substance, that is, a storytelling device clever enough to distract the audience from the fact that it has no substance.

Philosophically, the moral of this film is that none among the billions of possible paths you could have taken in life is superior to the others as they are incomparable. The film tells us to enjoy our small moments instead of resorting to nihilism.

Again, this is just an idea, and the film only presents it as such. It fails to convince us because it spends so much time on irrelevant slapstick. The vast majority of the time is invested in appropriating, mocking, or parodying cinematic tropes. So, when genuine moments arrive, we can’t help but think, “Oh, that’s good acting,” but acting that makes us aware of acting is not good acting. This happens because the story lacks emotional substance. We are reminded of physical expressions as signifiers of emotions when they are disconnected. No amount of good acting can make up for the lack.

When you watch understated films like American Girl (a reverse immigrant story), the substance comes through loud and clear. Overstated films like Everything Everywhere compensate for the lack of flavor by pouring salt, sugar, and hot pepper. In this context, “state” is a transitive verb that takes an object. We overstate or understate something. For art, the object is truncated and implied because it’s an inexplicable substance. Understating means you make only a minimal attempt to literally explain what the substance is. In overstating, you do the exact opposite because, otherwise, nobody would notice whatever little substance it has. You can get away with it for music videos because the music is presumably the substance, but not for films. At times, Everything Everywhere feels like a painfully long music video.

The primary function of art is to communicate something incommunicable, which is what we tend to call “artistic substance.” If some concept can be explained in a PowerPoint presentation, there is no need to choose art as a medium. The philosophical concepts Everything Everywhere is trying to illustrate can be explained in less than five minutes. The film adds only some amusement to help you remember the concept, like John Green does when teaching kids about the French Revolution.

The film has some stylistic innovations. It reminds you of other surreal films like Being John Malkovich. But we have to keep in mind that Surrealism is a style. It can’t be an end in itself. As a director, you still have to have something to say. As my college teacher told me, “The reality is surreal enough.” It doesn’t add anything.

Because of the style of the film, the actors rarely had to convey genuine emotions. Most of the time, they were busy being goofy. Even if their acting were poor, we wouldn’t know how to evaluate it. What would be the standards by which to measure “good” acting when we are asked to disregard our reality?

Jamie Lee Curtis winning an Oscar is almost embarrassing. Her role was no more than a minor character in a cheap horror movie. Many have said she “deserves” it not so much because of this role but because of her career. If so, it only proves how incapable Hollywood is of evaluating artists on merit. They are correcting their past misevaluations at the expense of others who deserve it today. And these corrections create a need for more corrections in the future, like a lie leading to more lies.

Another factor that contributes to the naked emperor phenomenon is the Asian “representation” of the film. The internalized gaze of the social justice warriors makes many viewers speak positively about the film, lest they be called racists. Many Asian parents complain about affirmative action when they want their children in Ivy League colleges, so they shouldn’t accept it when it happens to be convenient for them. This film winning an Oscar is an insult to Asian filmmakers.

The Oscars might as well be a self-congratulatory award for identity politics. I can then nod in agreement for Everything Everywhere receiving the “Best Picture,” but as art, it should be titled “Everything Everywhere All But Substance.”