Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Evelyn is struggling with life. With her customers at the laundrette, with her father who is due in from China for his birthday, with her daughter Joy, who wants to bring her girlfriend to the birthday party (that won’t go down well with dad), with her husband Waymond who hasn’t done much wrong apart from being in the way. Plus today is the last day she can visit the tax office and explain why she claimed for a karaoke machine and similar fripperies as business expenses.

The opening scenes show Evelyn rushing around her cluttered flat from crisis to crisis, and they are absolutely exhausting. And this is before the incident on the way to the tax office. Evelyn shares the lift with someone who looks like Waymond but says that he’s actually come from a different multiverse and here to warn Evelyn of her imminent fate. He passes on written instructions that tell her to put on a headset, swap the feet that her shoes are on and press a green button.

When she follows the instructions, Evelyn develops the powers of a champion kung fu fighter. This becomes necessary, when the tax inspector (Jamie Lee Curtis playing it entirely for laughs) suddenly attacks her. As they rush for the lift, security are called. The alternative Waymonde takes on the guards by swinging his belt (or fanny pack, as US reviewers insist on calling it). Before long, the security guards are all lying in a heap, and Evelyn and Waymonde are rushing for the exit.

Alphaverse Waymonde explains to Evelyn the concept of “verse jumping”, that is moving to a different universe, which charts a different life that she could have lived – usually more successfully. To verse jump, you must do something with precisely the right level of improbability – like eating a whole chapstick or convincingly tell someone you love them. People monitoring what is happening shout into the headset tell Evelyn exactly which preposterous action is required.

Many critics have compared This film to the Matrix, and the comparison fits, but not necessarily in the way that was intended. This too is all style and little substance. It’s a film that thinks it is much more intelligent than it actually is. And unlike The Matrix, which knew at least to keep things simple, it throws in all sorts of special extra rules whose only point is to confuse us further. On several occasions someone shouts “What’s going on?”, echoing the thoughts of the audience.

Like The Matrix, there is also a lot of scenes featuring people kicking each other. And hitting each other. And attacking each other with butt plugs (yes, it most definitely does have a puerile streak). It is true that it is a great step forward that this hitting is done by a middle aged Chinese woman than by young muscle-bound men, but for a film that aspires to Say Important Things, there is an awful lot of mindless violence.

Yet for all this flash inanity, at times EEAaO (as we’ll now called it) is hilarious. The humour comes out of it being completely batshit crazy, and sometimes catches you unexpectedly when someone plays the piano with their feet, or adds googly eyes to the furniture or two rocks just sit there, conversing. Don’t worry about it, these are jokes which become less funny the more you try to explain them, but your (or at least my) response is to just burst out laughing.

This means that the film is continually in tension between two things – a story that believes it is being profound but in fact makes little sense, and odd moments of craziness which turn out to be quite – sometimes very – funny. As the film drags on (“drags” is the operative word here – there is nowhere near enough material for well over two hours) and starts to repeat itself, the undeserved sense of self-importance starts to take control, but you do have some laughs on the way.

At one stage someone says: “There are no rules”, and I think that this is the big problem. If anything is possible, nothing is dramatically interesting. You briefly laugh at the different worlds, such as the one where everyone’s fingers are shaped like sausages, because, you know what? In our fingers are finger shaped. But there is no sense of progress between the different images, it’s just shot after shot of things that just look a bit weird.

In the end, EEAaO throws everything against the wall to see what sticks. Some things do, some most definitely don’t. This is a film that may well have worked better as a – much shorter – sketch. There are some great ideas here which are extremely funny. But there is barely any structure. You might think this is a good thing – a lot of great humour from Monty Python to Spike Milligan have apparently ignored structure, but they were usually elegantly crafted. I don’t get that feeling here.

I can’t remember a film that was in turns so great, so uninspired and so boring. It is literally a film where one of the major plotlines is declaring your taxes. I divided my time in the cinema wanting to see it again and wishing that I could leave the cinema immediately and have nothing more to do with it ever again. Let’s just say that the best bits are great, but most of the rest of it just isn’t. In the end, there is just too much Stuff. Which is a shame, as some of the Stuff is hilarious.

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