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Margaret Wise Brown in the Multiverse of Madness
A pet theory about Everything Everywhere All At Once
Let’s see: what is worth writing about today? Nuclear threats in Ukraine? The apparent sabotage of the Nordstream pipeline? Britain’s zombie Thatcherism? Italy’s impending right-wing government? The alarming rise of the U.S. dollar? Hurricane Ian making landfall? Nah. We’re going to write about a movie that made its big splash way back in the spring. I’ve been waiting for a hook to air my pet theory about Everything Everywhere All At Once, and now I’m going to grasp the thin reed of Freddie deBoer writing about it to, as we used to say in the bloggity-blog days, “join the conversation.”
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For those who haven’t seen it before, EEAAO tells the story of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a stressed-out Chinese immigrant mom dealing with the impending failure of her family business, a tax audit that may well trigger that failure, the potential collapse of her marriage to a sweet but ineffectual Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) that may well be triggered by that failure, and the alienation of her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) due to mom’s generally overbearing and critical manner and, more proximately, the fact that she is hiding her daughter’s lesbianism (along with her own financial and marital difficulties) from her aged father (James Hong), who is visiting from the old country.
This conventional story explodes fairly early in the film when, in the middle of her meeting with the IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis), Waymond reveals that he is in fact a traveler who has crossed many alternate universes to help Evelyn access the powers of her alternate “selves” from other timelines so as to defeat an evil being called Jobu Tupaki who is threatening to destroy the entire multiverse. After battling a variety of agents of evil (e.g. the auditor) along with essentially innocent bystanders (e.g. the security guards at the I.R.S.), and discovering just how many divergent lives she led in different timelines (action star! opera singer! hibachi chef! lesbian with hotdogs for fingers!) it is revealed that Jobu Tupaki is none other than . . . her own daughter.
In one of the various timelines, it seems, Joy was trained to jump her consciousness between timelines much as one of the versions of her father did to reach “our” Evelyn. But she went “too far” and achieved some kind of total consciousness, realizing the full scope of the multiverse, within which literally everything that can possibly happen will happen, which in turn implies that nothing that happens actually matters. The metaphor for this realization in the movie is that she put “everything on a bagel” meaning literally everything. This metaphorical bagel becomes a literal black hole (or, I guess, torus) that will absorb everything if Joy/Jobu Tupaki gets her way. And since she is essentially all powerful, mom’s mission is now, basically, to talk her out of it—while also, incidentally, coming to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism, with the enduring value of her own marriage, and with the need to get her paperwork in order so she can pass her audit.
As deBoer points out, the actual plot doesn’t bear too close examination, but as always plot weakness is the kind of thing you notice when you aren’t fully absorbed in the world. And since the world is transparently, obviously silly—there’s not only an alternate timeline where people have hotdogs for fingers, but those hotdogs are filled with condiments—it’s impossible to object to the silliness of the plot without coming off as a party poop. It’s like complaining that Rick could have found zillions of easier ways of getting out of family therapy than turning himself into a pickle.
On a philosophical level, the whole “the multiverse makes everything meaningless” thing is, well, very adolescent, but it’s also very topical given that the predominant cinematic form of our time has gone all-in on the multiverse as a narrative device and is boldly betting that the audience won’t care that this makes all of its stories meaningless. So far, that bet seems to be working, which says something about our civilization. If I were in a really negative mood, I’d say that it means we no longer construct meaningful life narratives, and therefore no longer look to narrative to provide meaning. But I’m not feeling that negative today, and besides I think EEAAO is a poor poster child for that particular claim, since it’s quite clear that it thinks its narrative has meaning. So if I’m going to critique it, it’s going to be a critique about just what that narrative is doing when you strip away the dorm-room philosophizing and the “woo! look at me!” action sequences and jokes—most of which, I will note, I found both fun and, at least occasionally, genuinely creative; they are why, ultimately, I enjoyed the movie, despite my critique.
Which brings me to my pet theory of the film.
My pet theory is that EEAAO is a retelling of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book, The Runaway Bunny. Brown is probably best-known for her children’s book, Goodnight Moon—which also features a family of bunnies and was also illustrated by Clement Hurd—and The Runaway Bunny is equally delightful. It tells the story of a young bunny who wants to run away, and a mama bunny who promises that if he does, she will come after him and find him. His plans for running away quickly turn fanciful in the extreme—he will turn into a fish and swim away; he will turn into a crocus and hide in a garden; he will turn into a sailboat and sail away—and the mother bunny readily follows him transformation for transformation, turning into a fisherman, a gardener and even a wind capable of blowing the sailboat where she wants it to go. In the end, the young bunny decides there’s no point in running away when his mother will just find him anyway, and decides to stay home and be her little bunny.
The book is delightful for kids on multiple levels. First of all, they get to stretch their imaginative wings as they contemplate the possibility of becoming all kinds of other things—a fish, a crocus, a sailboat. From this they get a sense of freedom and of power. They get another sense of power, and of control, in finding the little bunny in each of the pictures—the bunny may have run away, but he hasn’t disappeared; they know where he is. The fact that the little bunny wants to run away is reassuring—they have probably felt the desire to escape at times from mother’s embrace, or from home altogether, and now they know that bunnies feel the same way. But the fact that the mother bunny will always come after them, and can always find them, is also reassuring—they can vicariously experience the break from their mother while at the same time knowing that the break isn’t full, isn’t real, that she’ll still always be there (as, indeed, they hope their real mother will still be when the time comes to differentiate and, ultimately, to separate from her). It even reserves something for mom; after the little bunny decides to stay home, the mother bunny gives him a carrot, a little moment of victory and security in her position. It’s a pretty flawless kids’ book.
Immediately after seeing the movie, I thought of the book, which the movie both recapitulates and inverts. Far from being confidently in control, mom’s world is falling apart, introducing all sorts of elements—marital conflict, financial difficulty—that Brown’s little bunny would have no reason to think about or even understand. But Evelyn’s little bunny has still run away, in a sense—and, more to the point, has transformed herself. Mom has to chase across the multiverse to find her, transforming in turn into something different with each jump—into a martial arts master, a wobbly-fingered mutant, a rock—to counter her daughter’s stratagems. But in the end, all the daughter really wants is for mom to be there for her, maintaining for her a secure, kind and welcoming home.
But there’s a crucial difference between the two stories. The protagonist of Brown’s book is the runaway bunny, the stand-in for the kid doing the reading or being read to. The protagonist of EEAAO, though, is the mother. And yet, it isn’t really a movie about or from her perspective, but rather from the perspective of her daughter. While the mother is pursuing the daughter throughout the film, it is the daughter who is the powerful one, who has the ability to defeat her mother at every turn, and ultimately to destroy the universe. Over the course of the movie, the mother has to repeatedly reject efforts by others to get her to kill her daughter (and thereby save the universe). But the ultimate moment of confrontation involves the mother letting her daughter destroy herself, letting her enter the black hole (or, rather, bagel) of total nihilism, if that’s what she wants. It’s only because at the last moment the daughter reaches out for mom’s waiting hand that she, and the universe, are saved.
What does this mean? Taken literally, it seems to mean that if your kid has serious suicidal ideation, you should deal with it by letting them go through with it, because that shows that you really love and trust them to do what is really best for them. This is, to put it mildly, really bad advice. But I don’t think it’s wise to take the story literally. Rather, I think it makes more sense to take the whole movie as an expression of guilt feelings about the desire to differentiate. Joy wants her mother to be more like the mother in The Runaway Bunny, nurturing her desire to transform (whether into a lesbian or into someone with hotdogs for fingers), while always being ready to take her in if things get tough. That’s a reasonable desire! Yet, because of the dynamics of this family, it’s a desire that feels to Joy as akin to the desire to destroy the universe, which is terrifying. So the fantasy is that, by finally expressing that desire in all its horror, mom will be transformed into precisely the mother Joy always wished she had.
That fantasy has apparently followed at least some young women out of the theater and into their real lives, where they hope that seeing the film will help their mothers understand just how much they are to blame for having passed on generational trauma to their daughters. I don’t know whether art is or is not therapy, but I do have some idea of what therapy is, and if you go into it expecting it to give you the tools to transform someone else who you blame for your problems, then you will be sorely disappointed. Yet I think that’s exactly what the movie wants its audience to experience vicariously. If the film wanted the audience to experience vicarious growth and change, then it would have been Joy’s story, since the whole film is an expression of the daughter’s desires, not the mother’s. It would have been her story of differentiation, and she would have been rewarded (like Brown’s little bunny) by keeping her family anyway. It would have been a feel-good movie like CODA, last year’s unlikely Best Picture winner. But that’s not what the film wants: it wants the audience to experience the thrill of seeing mom realize that they, the kids, were right about everything all along, and to experience that realization as a relief. That’s not good therapy and it’s not good art; it’s wish-fulfillment.
Actually, I do have some thoughts about art and therapy. I think art can be quite therapeutic, both to make and to experience. I’m wary of going into the process of creating or experiencing art with therapeutic intention, and yet even there I have to hedge, because I recognize those intentions in the broadest sense—meaning the desire to touch someone else’s heart—in myself. There’s a bit in the documentary, Tales From the Script that I like very much, where Bruce Joel Rubin talks about making the movie, My Life, in which Michael Keaton plays a terminally ill man preparing for his death by making a video for his child about his life. The film did not do well, either financially or critically, and Rubin was pretty bummed about that, notwithstanding that only three years earlier another film he wrote had been a massive commercial success and won two Oscars, including for Best Original Screenplay. Anyway, as he tells the story, he’s feeling sorry for himself until he gets a letter from someone who saw the film and attested to its transformational effect. It seems a mother and daughter went to see the film together—I forget who sent the letter, the mother or the daughter, but it doesn’t matter—at a time when the mother had terminal cancer and the two had been unable to talk frankly about her impending death. The movie finally enabled them to do so, and they wanted to thank him for that. So, in the documentary, Rubin says that movie was a success, because he didn’t make it for money or good reviews—he made it for that mother and daughter. And I think that’s lovely.
A good “art as therapy” moment would be seeing a movie that reminds you of your mother, and of all the ways she fell short of the magical being you wanted her to be when you were little, and, as a result of understanding her better, feeling more compassionate towards her, more forgiving of her failures, more able to set aside the lingering resentments that have impeded your ability to have an adult relationship. If, by contrast, you come out of a movie that reminds you of your mother and think, “man, mom really needs to see this; it’ll finally explain to her all the ways she messed up,” then, far from a breakthrough, I think you’ve just experienced a setback wrapped in the illusion of empowerment. I fear EEAAO is selling the latter rather than the former experience. Based on the box office numbers, it’s finding a great many willing buyers.
(By the way, I tell that bit from Tales From the Script all the time, because it encapsulates for me what I want out of the process of writing and filmmaking. When I told the story in a screenwriting group once, the fellow who ran the group asked, “Well, do you need to hear from them, from the mother and daughter? Or is it enough to believe they’re out there?” I admitted that I needed to hear from them, and he said, “You might not get that. You might have to learn to live without it.” Indeed.)
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