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In Review: 'Everything Everywhere All at Once,' 'The Lost City'
This week brings two movies loaded with references to other movies, but only one could be described as "original."
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Dirs: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert
Even before she discovers she exists in a multiverse born of the seeming infinite possibilities spinning out from her every choice, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) finds life pretty overwhelming. She runs a laundromat filled with demanding customers, her father Gong Gong Wang (James Hong) is visiting from China for a Chinese New Year’s celebration, she’s not sure how she feels about her daughter May (Stephanie Hsu) attending the celebration with her girlfriend, and her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) keeps asking to talk to her about something, which can’t be good. Then there’s that appointment with the IRS office, and a dinner to make, and some lost dry cleaning to find… It’s all a lot. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s smaller than it looks.
Much smaller. Shortly before meeting with Deidre (an unrecognizable Jamie Lee Curtis), an IRS agent who seems almost cruelly invested in the state of Evelyn and Waymond’s returns, Waymond informs Evelyn that she has a crucial role to play in preventing the triumph of an existential threat. Except it’s not really Waymond telling her this. Or rather it is Waymond, but the Waymond of another universe, one with a much more intense gaze and, she’ll soon learn, a gift for martial arts. There are other Evelyns, too, and she’ll soon have to call on their abilities. Suddenly, the problems of one laundromat and those who run it look kind of puny.
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Except, as becomes increasingly clear as Everything Everywhere All at Once progresses, they’re actually, well, everything. Written and directed by the Swiss Army Man team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert, collectively known as The Daniels, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a description-defying, frenetically edited tour of multiple universes and multiple Evelyns (including one in which she's a Michelle Yeoh-like movie star), all packed with far-ranging film references (The Matrix, In the Mood for Love, a Pixar classic best left unspoiled). But it’s also the story of one woman’s mid-life crisis, one prompted by disappointment and crumbling relationships. It begins as a sugar rush of action and wild notions (that only occasionally feels like an ice cream headache) but, though the pace never really lets up, eventually reveals itself as a film that’s as contemplative and heartfelt as it is absurd. It often plays like an answer to Charlie Kaufman’s recent films, using similar dream logic and dark humor to look into the abyss but putting up more of a struggle to avoid falling into it than Kaufman’s work.
Kaufman’s films (to date) also haven’t featured quite this much martial arts action, however. The many action scenes require Yeoh to draw on skills honed as a Hong Kong star, and she is, unsurprisingly, up to the challenge. (So is Quan, an ’80s child star who makes a splashy return after largely sitting out the last couple of decades.) But she’s also, just as unsurprisingly, able to shoulder the dramatic weight of a film that needs a strong, soulful center to avoid spinning out of control. Making the most of a story set in a multiverse, the Daniels throw in ideas, visual styles, and action setpieces at a machine gun pace that’s mostly thrilling but also occasionally exhausting, like a roller coaster ride that keeps finding new hills to ascend and new ways to induce whiplash. But it’s very much a ride worth taking, both for the circus parade of cinematic tricks, the moving story they serve, and the way Yeoh makes sense of it all, playing a woman who contains multitudes but discovers each, in her own way, has the same needs, the same flaws, and the same ability to find peace, even if making peace requires the occasional outburst of kung-fu. —Keith Phipps
The Lost City
Dir. Aaron and Adam Nee
Two adventurers, former lovers who have rekindled the flame, are splayed out at the bottom of an ancient tomb, which they’ve presumably discovered while searching for some elusive treasure. The floor is swarming with deadly snakes.
Loretta Sage deletes the whole scenario as soon as she types it. Too hackneyed. Too obviously indebted to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Her entire series of romance-adventure novels, built around a Fabio-like beefcake named Dash, is bumming her out. She has a passion for real history and archeology, but the only way she can sell her books is to package it within formulaic garbage. She craves the opportunity to express herself more authentically.
The Lost City is a subtweet of contemporary Hollywood. It’s also a capitulation. Original films of any kind are impossible to get bankrolled by major studios in 2022 unless they so strongly evoke past blockbusters that the distinction doesn’t matter, as evidenced by Free Guy, the only Top 10-grossing film of last year not based on preexisting material. With that opening fake-out from Loretta’s novel-in-progress, The Lost City is admitting that it can’t rip off Raiders of the Ark so shamelessly, but it can’t get away from it either. So the solution is to nod at the familiar. To comment on it. To parody it. To gender-reverse it. To do whatever it takes to make the old seem new again.
It’s an exhausting and cynical gambit, however effectively The Lost City exploits it. In its effort to avoid being Raiders of the Lost Ark, it instead becomes a riff on a riff, pivoting into tongue-in-cheek Romancing the Stone territory, as Sandra Bullock’s Loretta setting out on an actual romantic adventure with her dim-witted cover model. There’s a certain amount of cleverness to the conceit, and a fine chemistry between Bullock and her co-star, Channing Tatum, whose gift for playing affable lunkheads is unquestionable and probably unparalleled. He’s a 21st century Judy Holliday. But such cleverness has its limits.
In the opening scenes, Loretta has pushed the deadline on her latest novel so far that the franchise is seeming musty and fans are moving on. When she finally does drag a manuscript over the finish line, her publicist Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) launches a splashy book tour for her and “Dash,” who’s really Alan (Tatum), a hunk in a blond wig who flexes his biceps, poses for fan pictures. and pretends to have a greater role in the creative process than merely modeling for the cover. The pitiful book launch gets livelier, however, when Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), a billionaire tomb-raider, kidnaps Loretta and tries to use her knowledge of archeological treasure to track down a bejeweled crown. This inspires Alan to come to her rescue, despite possessing none of the capabilities of the Dash of the books , outside of barrel chest and a romantic spirit.
Bullock and Tatum make a fine team, two old comic hands who fake their way through the jungle, trying to fend off the henchman who track the fallen sequins on Loretta’s purple jumpsuit. Nothing else in The Lost City works—not Radcliffe’s evil genius heel turn, not a subplot around Beth trying to track her down, not a bit about a social media manager (Patti Harrison) frantically updating Loretta’s Instagram page—but it’s nearly as fun to watch real stars playing hapless fictional stars improvising around real danger here as it was in Tropic Thunder in 2008. That movie was a big hit, too. Maybe “a PG-13 Tropic Thunder” landed well at pitch meetings. But there’s no inspiring future for a Hollywood that insists on eating on its own tail. — Scott Tobias