“Well, that was a religious experience,” my friend exhaled. We had just seen Everything Everywhere All at Once, the superhero multiverse film that all my Asian American friends had implored me to see for weeks. I knew what she meant. My heart was still racing as we tumbled out of the movie theater into the twinkling dusk. Kendall Square—a cluster of developments in Cambridge that I usually found deadening with their modern glass-and-steel façades—shimmered, almost enchanted. The boundary between myself and those around me felt oddly permeable. I am told this is what taking hallucinogens feels like. It is also how I have often felt following the throng out of church services on Sundays during college with the worship songs still echoing in my head.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the most poignant paean for America in recent cultural production comes to us in the form of an Asian American film. As the political theorist Bonnie Honig has compellingly argued, the foreigner has always been central to the constitution of the democratic community. If one aspect of religiosity in America is the belief in America, then scholars of religion would do well to consider the cultural production of those who have been seen as most foreign to it.
Nations are imagined communities, that much is hardly news. The scholar of religion might add that nations are really communities of belief. What sustains the United States is the belief in the existence of America as a coherent political community. This belief is sustained by rituals, obvious examples of which include singing the national anthem and raising the flag. But there are also less obvious iterations. Scholars of religion and visual culture prompt us to examine, for example, the religiosity of film. Harnessing the insights of scholars of American civil religion and film and religion, I want to suggest that watching films of a particular subgenre constitutes participating in the ritual of American civil religion—a religious experience, one might say.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell identifies a subgenre of American film—romantic comedies of remarriage—which reveal the “the inner agenda of a culture,” a kind of “shared fantasy.” Encountering Cavell, I am reminded of the literary theorist Northrop Frye’s theorization of the genre of the romance as secular scripture. Bringing together the philosopher and the literary theorist, I am interested in how comedies of remarriage might be construed as the secular scripture of American political life.
Cavell notes that the comedy of remarriage, pioneered in the Hollywood talkies of the 1930s and 40s, “cast[s] as its heroine a married woman; and the drive of its plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again.” The animating question of these films is then not whether the couple will get together but whether they will stay together, and if so how. Cavell understands remarriage “as a search for reaffirmation,” meaning that it “is not merely an analogy of the social bond, or a comment upon it, but it is a further instance of experimentation in consent and reciprocity”—namely, the two desiderata of liberal democracies. As such, comedies of remarriage enact the central question of liberal democratic communities: Why stay together? How do we stay together?
Quirky and maximalist, Everything Everywhere makes full use of film’s visuality to exact total attention from the viewer. The film follows Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American woman who operates a laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Rushing between gathering papers for a tax audit and throwing a birthday party for her father, she is waylaid by the Waymond from the Alphaverse, a more technologically advanced parallel universe that has invented a way to jump between universes. Alpha Waymond informs Evelyn that a chaotic force, enigmatically named Jobu Tupaki, is brewing in the multiverse. Jobu threatens to destroy all the universes, and Evelyn is the only one capable of stopping her.
The film opens with the threat of breakdown: not of the universe—not yet, in any case—but of the family. In the first scene, Waymond nervously approaches Evelyn with divorce papers. As the film unfolds, we encounter more relationships pushed to their breaking point. Evelyn’s daughter Joy is frustrated with Evelyn for her latest offense: introducing Joy’s girlfriend Becky to her grandfather as Joy’s “friend.” Evelyn has a strained relationship with her father, who never approved of her following Waymond to America and of their investment in the laundromat. The question set up by the beginning of the film, quite apart from the save-the-universe plot, is this: Will the Wang family stay together, or won’t they? Here, Everything Everywhere’s affinities with the comedy of remarriage become apparent.
The stakes of keeping the family together are played out in the film through its multiverse conceit. Notably, the question of whether Evelyn keeps her family together is inextricable from the question of whether she immigrates to America. As Evelyn jumps between universes, we see how the most alluring of Evelyn’s alternate life paths are predicated upon her not having married Waymond. Many of the alternate universes Evelyn glimpses reveal what might have happened had she stayed in China. There’s a universe in which Evelyn was blinded when she was a child, never meets Waymond, and becomes a professional opera singer in China. There’s another in which Evelyn falls in love with Waymond but ultimately rejects his proposal to run away to the United States. This Evelyn is accosted in an alley by muggers, and then saved by a martial arts expert, who takes her on as an apprentice. Kung fu-fighting Evelyn eventually becomes a wuxia (Chinese martial arts) film star. “Normal” Evelyn is enthralled by these glimpses into other universes. And who wouldn’t be? Speculation about what might have been is universal, but the multiverse conceit in Everything Everywhere taps into a particular speculation-cum-regret of the immigrant, whose paths-not-taken wind through another country, which is to say, another world.
The film plays out the agonizing push and pull of the temptation to give up and stop trying so hard to keep the family together across its many universes. Nothing plotwise actually happens in its second hour. Instead, the movement of the film becomes dialectical, bouncing between giving up and trying to stay together. The ping-ponging is played out in Evelyn’s struggles against Jobu Tupaki (who, as we find out, is Joy in the Alphaverse) as she tries to pull both of them from the void, over and over again.
In the end—spoiler alert, though you probably could have guessed it anyway—the film does not endorse separatism and violence. Kung fu is superseded by the power of love. Ultimately, Evelyn—having seen multiple different universes in which she could be many more awesome versions of herself—chooses to stay with her family, in the United States, in their ailing laundromat. The film cycles through many universes in which Evelyn arrives at this decision, scene upon scene of reconciliation. It’s an ending we know well.
And yet, Everything Everywhere still compels us. The film enchants the everyday, imbuing even the most mundane chore—filing taxes—with magic. Its core message about love is cliché, but it makes the point with aplomb, delivering a visual experience that still manages to surprise an audience who has seen too much. The imaginative alternate universes that populate the film (including, for example, a universe where people have hot dogs for fingers) invite laughter and intrigue. The elaborately choreographed fight sequences with weapons that range from staplers to sex toys have us sitting at the edge of our seats. The film is unapologetically loud and flashy, grabbing the viewer by the lapels and refusing to let go until the final second. An irony abides in the film in its inclusion of a generous dollop of kitsch (a scene in which Jobu is resplendent in a bejeweled Elvis costume walking a pig on a leash comes to mind). But the irony is directed at the endeavor of filmmaking itself and the aesthetics of what one might consider “serious” filmmaking. The core of the film remains heartachingly sincere about the power of love.
The most political part of the film, then, is not that it centers a fictional Chinese American family with whom viewers could empathize. It is that the film—an Asian American film—jolts us into belief that there remains something salvageable in America and the (immigrant) family. Caught off-guard by the whimsical sincerity of the film, I felt my shell of skepticism, hardened by my years in graduate school bingeing one critical take after another, crack. For a moment, I wondered if love might not be a hollow concept for politics after all.