One Last Chance to Boot the Nothing Matters Blues

What remains is irony. Once irony was a rebel yell; now it is spiritually corrupting, the voice of the damned of neoliberalism. When David Foster Wallace wrote about post-modern irony, he yearned for something better. Post-modern irony became a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. It became not liberating, but enslaving. It became the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

– Stuart Jeffries, Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Post-modern

One of the more bizarre notions to emerge out of the last few decades is the mind-bender: What if we lived in a multiverse? What if instead of the one barely coherent universe we existed in just one of an infinite number of universes — simultaneously? What if you lived in various modes and disguises and forms in all those space-time continuums? Forbes magazine ran a multiverse piece back in 2019, almost like they wanted to rub the gobsmack in our face. Ethan Siegel, wrote:

The Multiverse is an extremely controversial idea, but at its core it’s a very simple concept. Just as the Earth doesn’t occupy a special position in the Universe, nor does the Sun, the Milky Way, or any other location, the Multiverse goes a step farther and claims that there’s nothing special about the entire visible Universe.

If you mess with God (the über-Brennan of the ultimate IC), then He has six ways from Sunday to pay you back.

The multiverse means we are essentially all strangers in a strange land, truly clueless, and we probably deserve every bit of it for embracing neoliberalism and the postmodern so recklessly. As with the 2007 Ig Noble Prize-winning gaybomb concept, which is what we should be sending to Ukraine instead of Abrams tanks, blowback is your bitch. And we don’t care which way the wind blows there. Personally, I’d love to see Putin come out of the pink smoke with his eyes all Pussy Riot needy . And Z may be a corrupt actor playing a corrupt president, but he sure knows how to dance. Yep, as Dylan might have observed, he’s a real song-and-dance man. And probably be a CIA puppet. Remember how Bill Clinton’s pal Boris Yeltsin danced the night away all day everywhere all the time? , actually.

The multiverse is a main character in the recent film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), which has been nominated for 11 Oscars for this year’s Academy Awards. The notion is embedded right there in the title. And the movie lives up to the implications of the notion — at times it’s all over the goddamned place in a way that reminds me of the glory days of the Marx brothers. Zany. Surrealism and absurdism abound. Normal everyday affairs turn into an environment reminiscent of The Matrix, Kill Bill, A Wonderful Life, and GroundHog Day, according to some of the film’s actors. I’d throw in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, too. It’s a wild ride and a lot of fun to watch.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is officially a science fiction /action / adventure/ comedy. The film is written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. It stars Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians), Stephanie Hsu (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Ke Huy Quan (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), James Hong (Kung Fu), and Tallie Medel (Broad City). This core ensemble is wonderful, playing off each other deftly and playfully. But there is also a darker, graver layer that works effectively as a catalyst for humorous mayhem. The IMDB Storyline of the film is succinct:

With her laundromat teetering on the brink of failure and her marriage to wimpy husband Waymond on the rocks, overworked Evelyn Wang struggles to cope with everything, including tattered relationships with her judgmental father Gong Gong and her daughter Joy. She must also brace herself for an unpleasant meeting with an impersonal bureaucrat: Deirdre, the shabbily-dressed IRS auditor. However, as the stern agent loses patience, an inexplicable multiverse rift becomes an eye-opening exploration of parallel realities. Will Evelyn jump down the rabbit hole? How many stars are in the universe? Can weary Evelyn fathom the irrepressible force of possibilities, tap into newfound powers, and prevent an evil entity from destroying the thin, countless layers of the unseen world?—Nick Riganas.

This Chinese immigrant is Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) and the wimpy husband (who wears a bumbag) is Waymond Wang (Quan). Evelyn is not only in a troubled marriage but struggles to keep their daughter Joy engaged in the Chinese-American subculture, as she pursues a ‘taboo’ lesbian relationship with Becky (Medel). Confucian reigns, but so does freedom. Tough fortune cookie.

The Jungian Journey that gets the adventure going comes after Evelyn, frustrated by the flatulent IRS bureaucrat Deidre (Curtis), auditing the Wang family laundromat business, sucker punches Deidre on her way to the elevator. Seemingly, Evelyn has misinterpreted the expression on Deidre’s face as imminent threat and over-reacts. In this instance, it’s Deidre who receives a Jungian Wound, and the odyssey toward new selfhood begins (even, eventually, for Deidre, who comes to learn she’s “lovable”). Suddenly, there is chaos at the IRS office. Suddenly, normal domestic intranquility and quiet quest for Confucian-American balance becomes like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Suddenly, it’s an audit to die for. As Evelyn, Waymond and Gong Gong (Kong) show us some stylized violence that is laugh out loud funny. And Deidre comes at them now as Laurie Strode channeling Michael Myers. You wish you could sic Deidre on Trump and his tax havens.

Even as Evelyn sat at Deidre’s desk accompanied by Waymond and Gong Gong, she goes off on hallucinatory reveries. Waymond is seen as a superhero with gizmos capable of transporting Evelyn to other simultaneous universes, a kind of Jungian synchronicity. He wears a contraption on his head that lights up and that eerily conjures up a computer-brain interface I’ve been reading about lately (You can send emails by thinking it to the computer!). The interface works as a kind of wormhole through which Waymond acts as her guide on adventures that ultimately tests their continued love for each other. Similarly, she goes to strange new worlds to save her alienated relationship with Joy, who feels rejected by her conservative family for her lesbian identity and “weight issues” that Evelyn keeps remarking on. And now, this, the audit: everything coming at her, everywhere it seems, all the time.

Just before the sucker punch moment, Deidre has decided to give Evelyn “one more chance” to get the paperwork she needs to save the audit from going south — 6 pm that day or it’s curtains. There’s just one item on the audit that causes the ruckus: The Wangs have declared a karaoke machine as a business expense, and Deidre isn’t having any of it without more documentation — she even circles, over and over, the receipt brought in. (This triggers for me a day I spent at Chicopee High School back in the 80s, when I was studying to be an English teacher, and sat in a class there, where the instructor handed me a photocopy of a fail paper he’d handed back to a student with the F circled and circled upper right — about where the heart would be, if the paper were a person. I recalled, then, the walk-through metal detector coming into the school, and, later, at lunch the box milk cartons with missing children — a seriously troubled school, and it didn’t even have any people of color to blame.)

But still, mean Deidre, does give Evelyn one more chance to save herself. And she has one more chance to save her marriage, and to literally hold on to her daughter who threatens to enter the black hole that Joy imagines as a giant fat-fuck bagel with everything where she sees herself at the event horizon, soon to be swallowed up by identity rejection. But just as Waymond steps up to the plate in her fantasy life to prove himself a martial arts superhero, beating the snot out of IRS office security guards with him bumbag, so does Joy as, at first, she comes at mom from some other universe (mom and daughter are alienated — get it?) and threatens to hurt her (Joy lashing out against the conservative rejection of her lesbian identity), but there’s more (but no spoiler). Talk about Pressure Drop.

The bagel black hole becomes a metaphor that sustains the image of a world filled with human desire and light and being and bios getting swallowed up by death and destruction and war and eschatological anxiety amplified by CRISPRs and AIs laughing at them (what else could it mean when Americans have 425 million guns circulating other than that they know something’s up and intend to fight their way out of extinction?). As playful as Everything Everywhere All At Once tries to be, it is also a fantasy that Nothing Matters amplified by the hungry Bagel, with cultures (subcultures) dissolving in homogeneous mediocrity and nuclear families melting down, and people going around he/him or she/her and dressed like every day was Carnival. WTF is going on? Have we gone barking dog MAGA mad?

What if we find ourselves showing up on milk cartons, childhoods missing?

Earlier, Deidre, pointing to the many receipts of the audit on her desk, tells the Wangs that each receipt tells a story, and she looks at them as a Judgement Day figure, wanting an accounting and justification for every moment spent in life. This partially accounts for the science fiction reveries that finds Evelyn “jumping” from universe to universe within her own memories and the flotsam and jetsam of accumulated experiences and their associations (the film’s opening scene depicts Evelyn in her office almost swallowed up by artifacts on the wall and a desk filled with mountains of paperwork. Each memory is a receipt with a story. The multiverse on the microlevel is also the way to freedom and new chances and new ways of seeing. This is the journey that Joy brings her mother on — a mother with one foot in the ancient world and one in this modern America, brimming with possibility. They don’t always seem like complementary worlds on the surface, but there is a lucid dreaming side to things we don’t always connect to, but Joy helps her Mom connect, and Mom pulls Joy away from being absorbed by the Bagel.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is often hilarious. The kung fu scenes, especially at the IRS office, are extremely entertaining. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert seem to go out of their way to make us bust a gut and end up in stitches watching the proxy national security state (the office guards) and the life auditor (Deidre) take a beating in a carnival of earthly delights. The film has a scene where Evelyn beats the shit out of her tormentors from inner-outerspace with enormous rubber dildoes, in lieu of the traditional nunchucks. Beats them down with their own dick mentality. Catharsis as deus ex machina takes a kick in the nuts.

Everything Everywhere All At Once has three parts — 1. Everything; 2. Everywhere; 3. All At Once — and four distinct turns coming roughly every half hour. I liked the second half hour best, where the dialogue turns to miserable lives versus living up to one’s potential — the real theme of the film. Fighting the tyranny of banality and stasis. Abbie Hoffman used to say, Revolution for the Hell of It; it’s always a good idea to take a nice long shit to make room for the next revolution. Whether it flushes right or left depends on the hemisphere. The film lovingly recalls the happy days when lefties thought postmodernism would set us all free with the wonderful relativism of values. There’s something at work here to suggest a raging battle is roiling just under the surface. And maybe just in time as we head into the technological singularity where we duke it out with AIs for evolutionary supremacy. What with the quantum ahead to contend with, too, we may come out the fracas as slaves to machines with duckrabbitting societies of privilege where ‘people’ converse with each other at invite-only parties speaking English at auction speed. Or we can give ourselves a second chance to recover our humanity.

I (high) recommend Everything Everywhere All At Once. You like this fortune cookie.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.