As I was clearing out some boxes in the spare bedroom that has served as my home office for the past two years, I found this:
It’s a pocket watch.
I can’t tell you exactly when I bought it. I got it on eBay, but they don’t keep records on auctions from over 20 years ago and any emails about it would have gone to an aol.com address that no longer exists. The internet remembers everything and nothing. It was definitely when I was in high school. Let’s say 1999.
Anyway, I can tell you exactly why I bought it. I can remember sitting in my parents’ den in Ohio, connected to AOL on a dial-up modem. In between all-important Instant Message conversations with friends, I’m browsing eBay. I’m trying to find a pocket watch.
I knew nothing about pocket watches back then. Honestly I know nothing about this pocket watch now. There’s no brand name or manufacturer’s mark, so I don’t know where it came from. The auction said it maybe came from Russia, which I thought was an interesting bit of trivia. The auction did have the important details: it was a pocket watch, and it worked.
I bid, and I won. Then, I waited.
When it arrived, I knew that this was going to change everything.
Friends, I thought I could be a Pocket Watch Person.
Last week I finally—finally!—sat down in a proper movie theater for the first time since, well, you know to see Everything Everywhere All At Once.
You must see this movie. It is an experience.
It is also impossible to summarize, but here’s my attempt: Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn Wong, a Chinese immigrant with a struggling laundromat, a put-upon husband, an increasingly distant daughter, an overbearing father, an upcoming IRS audit, and oh right also the untapped ability to stop the destruction of her entire universe and the near-infinite parallel universes that split off every time anyone makes a choice.
In the middle of a meeting with her IRS investigator, Evelyn gets recruited by a group of fighters from another parallel universe to fend off a multiverse-devouring threat. Then things get wild.
The science fiction gimmick that drives the action is that a person in one universe is able to access the skills and talents of a different version of yourself in another universe.
For example, Protagonist Evelyn gains access to International Kung Fu Movie Star Evelyn, who’s trained in hand-to-hand combat. Hibachi Chef Evelyn is handy with a knife. Successful Singer Evelyn can hold her breath for a long time. Each of these talents gets put to use fending off various cross-dimensional threats.
So it’s similar to The Matrix where Trinity can download the ability to pilot a helicopter in an instant. But you can only get new abilities from a parallel universe version of yourself.
When I think of how I was in the past, I think of there existing infinite past versions of myself. Not so much parallel universe versions of Lee, but more point-in-time Lees.
I am quick and ruthless in dismissing them.
Dating His College Girlfriend Lee was passing time with the wrong person. Assistant Insurance Underwriter Lee was miserable in a soul-sucking office job. Marathon Runner Lee was ruining his knees. Diet Is Alarmingly High Percentage Of Hot Pockets Lee needed to eat some goddamn vegetables. Won’t Listen To Country and Rap Lee was ignoring the Wu-Tang Clan while they existed!!! Will Argue That Adore Is The Best Smashing Pumpkins Album Lee… well, you get it.
I was so stupid back then! I disavow them all! Every one of them!
I’m glad they’re dead now.
That’s what I say about the past Lees. I say that a lot.
At first, it seems like the genius of Everything Everywhere All At Once will be in how it uses its cross-universe-ability-tapping gimmick to set up well-choreographed action sequences smothered with a gleefully juvenile sense of humor. To wit, it features:
Stick-on googly eyes as a meaningful visual motif
Murder by giant dildo nunchucks
A universe-devouring everything bagel
A Chekhov’s gun but it’s a trophy shaped like a butt plug that is eventually going somewhere
An alternate universe where everyone has floppy hot dogs for fingers
It has all those things because it comes from writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“The Daniels”), whose previous film was Swiss Army Man, also known as “that movie where Daniel Radcliffe is a talking corpse who farts a lot”
(The search terms that lead people to this essay are gonna be wild.)
I enjoyed Swiss Army Man, so I had faith that The Daniels would deliver a pretty good action comedy. The action sequences do, indeed, slap—sometimes with dildo nunchucks.
And because Swiss Army Man turned out to have a lot more going on besides the Harry Potter corpse (and here I’m not talking about his erection that’s also a magical compass), I assumed Everything Everywhere All At Once would also have unexpected depths. However, I was blown away at just how much it had to say.
Quick To Disavow Previous Lees Lee, right now, has a lot to say to 1999 Potential Pocket Watch Person Lee.
What the damn hell was Potential Pocket Watch Person Lee thinking?
What was he gonna do? Just casually whip out a pocket watch to check the time in the middle of AP History? Nothing in that sentence is cool, dude!
Should it be on a chain? How else are you going to fish it out of the grotesquely oversized pockets of a late 1990s teenager’s wardrobe? Where do you even buy a pocket watch chain? (Hot Topic, probably, of course. They’re with the wallet chains, in between the Care Bear pajamas and Motörhead shirts.) Was he intending to stop at Pocket Watch On A Chain Person Lee, or was he going to add a monocle and top hat for Full-On Robber Baron Lee?
OK, fine, sure, I do know what he was thinking.
He thought it could maybe be a charming affectation, a gimmick. His gimmick. No one else in his school (or this century, probably!) carried a pocket watch. Maybe people would start to know him as Pocket Watch Person Lee instead of Band Geek Lee or In Too Many Honors Classes Lee or Kinda Overweight Lee or, ya know, Who Are You Even Talking About Steve Oh You Didn’t Say Steve Lee.
Maybe someone would start to know him at all. That’s all he wanted. That’s all everyone wants, right?
But he barely understood who he was! For pete’s sake he thought “Pocket Watch Person” was an identity that could fit. This is almost as bad as Thought He Would Look Good Like Indiana Jones If He Got A Fedora Lee.
I can see the faulty Underpants Gnomes logic at work here. 1. Get pocket watch. 2. ? 3. Be seen and beloved by all. Easy! Poor fool doesn’t yet understand that possessions are not a personality; a gimmick can maybe start a conversation, but you need something deeper to sustain it.
I will give 1999 Potential Pocket Watch Person Lee this: he figured all this out quickly.
There was never a Public Pocket Watch Person Lee.
Everything Everywhere All At Once could have coasted on its sci-fi gimmick and weirdo humor. Evelyn encounters threat, Evelyn taps into a new version of herself, slapstick gross-out action comedy ensues, repeat with increasingly grandiose battles until she saves all the universes, fin.
I probably would have liked that movie a whole lot!
What makes this movie astonishing is how it uses this framework to explore (multi-)universal themes such as generational trauma, the immigrant experience, how to be a good parent or partner, and, most of all, regret.
The exploration of regret over paths not taken is fueled by an inspired, tragic twist: unlike The Matrix where Neo downloads Kung Fu and then just knows Kung Fu, Protagonist Evelyn not only gains the talents of her alternate selves, but also experiences the entirety of their alternate lives. She sees exactly where these alternate selves made different choices, and where they ended up.
And they all look appealing! International Kung Fu Movie Star Evelyn is famous and glamorous. Successful Singer Evelyn has her father’s appreciation. Hibachi Chef Evelyn doesn’t have to manage a failing business.
Protagonist Evelyn is explicitly the one that made all the wrong choices; she is the worst possible version of herself across infinite parallel universes, and she is forced to see a different facet of that with every new Evelyn.
Could Pocket Watch Person Lee happen in 2022? I don’t think so, no. If I starting searching the internet to buy a pocket watch today… yikes.
Once the algorithmic persona-tracking ad monster saw that, there’d be no escape. In between every paragraph of every news article for the next eighteen months, an ad for pocket watches. People who bought a replacement battery for an electric lawnmower and some everything bagel seasoning mix COINCIDENTALLY ALSO BOUGHT THIS POCKET WATCH! Even if he did buy one, he’d continuing seeing more ads for the watch he just bought everywhere, forever.
Remember when you could forget a fleeting thought on your own terms?
And 2022 Pocket Watch Person Lee couldn’t just have and use a pocket watch. No. He’d have to rapidly generate and loudly share all his pocket watch opinions to be a proper Online Pocket Watch Person. The social networks would keep shoving other Pocket Watch People towards him all the time, all of them trying to find whatever loudest dumbest pocket watch opinion draws the most "engagement".
Well, that’s assuming the algorithmic advertising and content beasts were good at their jobs. They are not. Last week, Instagram started showing me nothing but reel after reel after reel after reel of women’s handball. I have never watched women’s handball in my life. I have no opinion on women’s handball whatsoever. I’m sure it’s a fine sport? Don’t @ me, Handball People. I mostly use Instagram to look at pictures of dogs, but my feed was 5% dogs, 5% actual friends, and 90% women’s handball.
Anyway, 2022 Pocket Watch Person Lee would have to start separate accounts dedicated to Pocket Watch Person Content. His followers came for Pocket Watch Person content, not Sometimes Bakes Bagels Person content or Has A Lawnmower Person Content or Likes Their Dog Person content or Any Other Type Of Person content.
Eventually, he’d feel the need to hustle and monetize and become a 2022 Online Sponsored Pocket Watch Influencer.
Maybe he would finally join TikTok, a social network that, based on the name, I’m assuming is for timepiece enthusiasts?
For a while, Everything Everywhere All At Once looks ready to go full nihilist.
As we spend more time with the alternate universe Evelyns, each reveals their own tragic shortcoming. International Kung Fu Movie Star Evelyn doesn’t have a shared life with her husband, her multi-dimensional true love. Successful Singer Evelyn is still under her father’s thumb. Hibachi Chef Evelyn—in one of the best constructed go-for-broke gags I’ve seen maybe ever—is actually the sidekick in someone else’s Pixar movie.
If every choice leads to misery, why exist at all?
Blessedly, it declines settling for “lol nothing matters”. (Although I probably would have liked that movie too!)
Instead Evelyn gradually learns that her life, her alternate lives, and all the lives and alternate lives of everyone around her may not be perfect, but they all have worth. Because of this, she shouldn’t and can’t defeat the forces that are destroying the multiverse with violence. Rather, kindness and joy and, yes, unceasing silliness are the right tools.
And somehow, this message doesn’t feel even the slightest bit forced or corny. And it’s a hoot the entire time! If spreading kindness to overcome her adversaries involves well-placed stick-on googly eyes or an alt-universe “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” that’s about a dominatrix, all the better!
“Everything Everywhere All At Once is exactly the sort of sophomore film you’d expect from the guys who made the heartfelt movie about Harry Potter’s farting corpse.” If you are amongst the fans who recognized the Daniels’s first film, Swiss Army Man, for what it is — a touching exploration of loneliness, and the transformational freedom that can be found in letting others into your world — then that line might make a sort of sense to you. But for the viewers who couldn’t see beyond the farts, or didn’t see that THE FARTS were necessary to THE MESSAGE, then this could be proof that Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t the film for you. Yet to divorce the two films from each other is to do each a disservice, because what the Daniels have done with Everything Everywhere All At Once is built on the foundation of their first film in the most meaningful way. Here they’re proving they have a method, a style, a viewpoint, and it’s simple: Life is beautiful, and life is messy, and ergo mess is beautiful. Their films are love letters to the gross and the weird, not as elements to illuminate the good but as elements that ARE good. Swiss Army Man wasn’t touching in spite of the farts but because of them, and likewise Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t profound in spite of the hot dog fingers and googly eyes and dildos and Chekhov’s butt plugs but because of them. It’s all a matter of perspective. Especially the googly eyes.
Tori is writing on Pajiba, a politics/culture/whatever site that I read religiously 15-odd years ago. I stopped visiting it regularly at some point, and I’ve probably ignored it for at least ten years.
I wonder if in another universe Still Reads Pajiba Every Day Lee is the one that made the better choice?
But in my universe, Stopped Reading Pajiba Every Day Lee has many fond memories of reading it back then. And what a treat that it’s still around! I loved Tori’s review.
I’m glossing over a lot of Everything Everywhere All At Once. I haven’t mentioned the virtuosic editing or the flawless cast or the apparent ease with which it weaves in ideas from dozens of other movies. I haven’t told you how Evelyn’s husband or her daughter or her IRS investigator play into the story.
You should experience it for yourself.
Maybe you, like me, will find yourself weeping in a theater when you meet Sentient Rock Evelyn.
It’s that kind of movie. It’s a bit of a miracle.
Private Pocket Watch Person Lee enjoyed the watch. At home, safely away from what he was sure would be judging eyes, he palmed it, ran his fingers over the embossed pattern on the case, felt the cool metal warm up in his hand.
In between those all-important Instant Messages, he would compulsively open and close the case. He liked squeezing the release, feeling it pop open, hearing the decisive ker-chick as it clasped back shut.
He kept the pocket watch under his pillow at night. The ticking from the mechanism was consistent, rhythmic, soothing. Just loud enough. If he focused on it, he kept the incessant, swirling, anxious teenage thought maelstrom at bay for just enough to drift to sleep.
He didn’t know how a watch worked, but he liked that it did work. It still works.
Everyone’s trying to figure out who they are all the time. We try things out. Put different versions of ourselves out there. See what feels right and what doesn’t. Not everything sticks, but not everything should. And it never stops.
Quick To Disavow Previous Lees Lee was wrong. The older versions of ourselves don’t die. He can’t kill them. They’re still a part of us, even if only a little. Even if we screwed up, we learned something from it.
If we’re in some sort of ever-expanding multiverse, perhaps Public Pocket Watch Person Lee was able to figure out how to be in the world in his own way. I wish him well. And I hope Stuck It Out With The College Girlfriend Lee, or Assistant To The Regional Manager of Insurance Underwriters Lee, or any of the others is happy in his own alternate universe.
Well, not Still Won’t Listen To Country and Rap Lee. He can go straight to hell.