This One Stale Joke Won’t Let Everything Everywhere All At Once Be Great

by Kyle Turner

Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan
Courtesy of A24

Jamie Lee Curtis’s dour IRS agent Deirdre shows us just how much bullshit she has to take doing her job in Everything Everywhere All At Once as the camera cuts past her to a line of awards, black and bruising like their recipient. Each trophy is bulbous, unmoving, the neck tapered—and quite obviously, they are butt plugs. They sit, three in a row, forebodingly in the corner of Deirdre’s little cubicle, almost overrun by paperwork. This image gets a laugh, perhaps because of its incongruousness or that its visual metaphor is barely veiled. And then the joke is dilated beyond its limits. Generosity could call the gag absurd, but only so that the attribute can be used defensively later.

It wouldn’t be so far-fetched to call Curtis’s character this film’s Red Queen, capable of both laying down a law of cruel realism as well as its intended opposite: pure illogical chaos. Everything Everywhere All At Once is, in its way, directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's take on wonderland, if wonderland were an infinite multiverse. The filmmaking duo’s trick is mostly done so well that one is unsure of whether it’s a joke fractured into epistemological inquiry, or epistemological inquiry shattered into a joke. Or, given the rules established by the film, perhaps it's both and neither at the same time.

When the joke turns into a whole scene, where two henchmen (played by the film’s choreographers Brian Le and Andy Le) going after Evelyn, the owner of a laundromat played by Michelle Yeoh, furiously race to insert the trophy into themselves to “verse jump” and find the martial artist within, its humorous goals get muddied. Is the joke two guys sticking something up their ass? Is it the power that they find when they do it? Is it the revulsion Evelyn feels after defeating them by removing the objects from their orifices?

It’s understandable if a joke doesn’t work. But that it doesn’t tacitly reveals how its writers conceptualize queerness and gratification. As the film compartmentalizes queer love as having a girlfriend, being depressed and nihilistic, and not being accepted by your mother, it shies away, for whatever reason, from the pleasure of it all, or at least a universe where that might exist. If its other jokes show how sweeping, universe-jumping film comedy can be, this one butt plug gag was tethered to the ground I already know.

Everything Everywhere All At Once concerns Evelyn, whose world is broken open during a tax audit when she's declared the multiverse’s only possible savior (while juggling a failing marriage and a brooding, aimless queer daughter). The film is always figuring out where to place the tension of a joke, as if the universe is indeed laughing at us. But as the Daniels engage and endeavor to stretch these cinematic, comedic, and philosophical boundaries, letting them bleed and explode into one another, there’s a bizarre reflex to also rely on the pedestrian and the stale.

A butt plug is an award for dealing with IRS bullshit, the word association game for such arduous processes branching out from the filmmaking team’s well-worn undergraduate brand of crassness: hardass, anal retentive, pain and/or pleasure. (Who’s to differentiate the last two, anyway?) When the time comes to call back to this joke, its thin surprise lies less in what happens but more in how it happens. For characters to multiverse jump in order to garner the special skills needed to fight, their present self has to do the most unlikely and most ridiculous thing to slingshot them to the universe with the different version of themselves that has those skills. For Evelyn’s husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), one scene involves giving himself papercuts between his fingers. And for two cronies of the villain Jobu Tupaki, it’s shoving the award up their asses.

The Daniels, who met at Emerson College and have gone on to make music videos and short films together, seem to locate their sensibility somewhere around taking an absurdly crass joke and pushing it to its existential limitlessness. In Interesting Ball, a 2014 short the two made for Dazed, the familiar plunk of a red dodgeball catalyzes unhinged and surreal changes in characters’ situations (a woman’s refrigerator runs as a child prank calls her with the old joke, an age gap relationship dissolves at a restaurant), which then pushes the characters to experience a more spiritual and metaphysical change of heart.

Like the Daniels’s other work, it inevitably ends with their heads literally up their asses. Swiss Army Man, their debut feature from 2016, too, makes a gross ragdoll of Daniel Radcliffe’s body, transforming Cronenbergian concepts of horror and reconstructing them for humor. Their video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” the project that put the duo on the map, presents Kwan with an invincible groin, Asian American male sexuality as impenetrable id. And Scheinert’s solo effort The Death of Dick Long is built around both the visceral terror of abject pleasure leading to death.

Calling their work edgy is shortsighted, but it is crucial to understand that their oeuvre and their preoccupations do exist dancing on the edge of the knife’s blade: between vulgarity and beauty, sophomoric and sophisticated. One would have to acknowledge that the kind of excess they are enamored of is rooted in a rather hetero-masculinist conception of absurdity: the thing that’s funny and weird and, per their playbook, also an avenue for metaphysical discovery, is the violation of hetero-masculine boundaries.

In a way, this trick is as old as slapstick; there’s hardly an older ground for material than anal violation. Evan Hill, a dramaturg and researcher in theories of comedy at Yale, told me, “Greek punishment for sodomy and adultery was ‘rhapanidosis’, or ‘a radish up the ass.’” Early examples of queerness, or of gender/sexual transgression, in silent comedy manifest themselves often via cross dressing or the fairy and sissy types that proliferated early cinema.

A carryover from what scholar Geoff King describes as the historically “‘lower’ cultural form” of slapstick and gross-out comedy, these violations of the body must, as he suggests in Film Comedy, strike a balance between comic pleasure and disgust, the latter of which corresponds to “most… cultures to the transgression of the most strongly policed cultural boundaries, particularly those around bodily border, orifices, and excretions. A feeling of disgust in these circumstances is a good indication of the extent to which cultural norms have been internalized by the individual.”

It’s not that Western society hasn’t retired these images exactly, but it does feel as if the temperature of the culture has shifted to recognize what these gags suggest—that anal penetration is violation worthy of revulsion and often connotes shame. There is, in some parts of entertainment and visual culture, an incremental embrace of a more progressive approach to comedy (See: Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar, Greener Grass, Sorry to Bother You).

If the Daniels spend time seeing how they can renew the oldest tricks in the comedy book to make them more expansive and possibly more meaningful, then the butt plug joke isn't morally bad. The problem is, it fails on that criterion: one of exploration and curiosity within these initial confines that the Daniels imply they’re trying to dismantle. That the joke falls flat—for me, at least—betrays the filmmakers’s weaknesses with regard to the context of their jokes. How far can you go if your starting point is always a particular view of maleness, sexuality, and maybe even race?

Given that the dramatic crux of Everything Everywhere All At Once is deeply connected to race and socio-national identity, the brazenness of the film’s humor, especially in context of its martial arts scenes, exhibits a curious relationship to those concepts. It wields a Stephen Chow-influenced nonsensicalness, drawing from the Hong Kong humor sensibility called “mo lei tau,” the absurd and the non-sequitur becoming one. For Hong Kong action comedy, the breaking of interior logic is the point.

The Daniels are hardly the first to play with masculinity and race within the realm of martial arts: Jackie Chan’s career long balanced a subversive humor about gender and power that was itself shaped by Buster Keaton. As video essayist Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting describes, a crucial component of Chan’s action comedy is that he starts off with a disadvantage or as an underdog. But this dynamic frequently creates a tension between Jackie Chan and how he fits within hegemonic masculinity, like the silent comedians he was shaped by: W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even Chaplin and Keaton, all employ comic personas that rest on their inability to assimilate into normative performances of masculinity.

Chan’s gender play is more explicit, as when he cross dresses for a fight as Street Fighter’s Chun Li in the film City Hunter, or when he uses plates to cover his crotch as he fights in The Accidental Spy. But there is a delineation to be made about how Chan is an Asian in America and an action star import, thus making the coloring of such racialized dynamics marginally, yet meaningfully, different.

Chan’s gender iconography is also an import, his mix of comic geniality and physical threat never undermining the cultural image of his machismo. But that’s relatively unusual in the context of the broad conception of Asian American maleness within society. Chan’s iconography, as well as the imagery that Everything Everywhere All At Once employs, unfortunately must exist in relation to the nasty anti-Asian stereotypes that emerged from xenophobic policy and legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Those social and legal policies, the power they had in conceiving Asian American gender stereotypes, and the way those stereotypes found their way into popular culture might complicate how the film engages with gender and race.

The image of two Asian American men seeking to insert a butt plug into themselves and then fight with that thing in them drags along with it a bit of baggage. There’s clearly a sense that the film aspires to shed the inherited burden of what that kind of scenario looks like and how it may fit into a longer history of gendered and racialized scenarios. The joke orbits a similar framework resembling one developed by academic Nguyen Tan Hoang, who writes in A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation of an “[embodiment] of Asian male bottomhood in order to access another way of seeing, touching, feeling, and imagining the ‘radical Elsewhere’ that bottomhood makes possible.” But it never really internalizes the idea that this situational bottoming grants these characters power and autonomy, because they remain abject in the scene.

Granted, the film’s focus and framing are on Evelyn and Joy, one whose idea of gender is fairly traditional (and tinged with cultural nuance) and one whose arc is breaking apart from that, partially through her queer identity. As Evelyn verse-jumps from one place to another, it acts alternately as extension and subversion of her own notions of how she relates to gender and race. It’s a work that intentionally toys with iconography itself, giving us the parameters through which not only gender can be conceptualized, but maybe film, too. In Evelyn, there is tradition; in Joy, there is the future and post-post modernity. And between them, as Waymond tells Evelyn, there are infinite multiverses.

In fairness to the film and filmmakers, the butt plug gag does not and could never exist in an absurdist vacuum, per se. The film’s childish japes run the gamut from mothers being unable to correctly pronounce the name of villains to makeshift dildo nunchucks to googly-eyes to raccoon chefs to an everything bagel that doubles as a black hole.

But most of these premises, while not all necessarily successful, at least have a more cemented connection to the attempts at experimenting with narrative and form. It’s clear that, as the film stretches on, jokes like the raccoon atop Harry Shum’s head who marionettes him as a good cook and Evelyn and Deirdre's hot dogs for fingers, return to be contrasted and then folded into the primary emotional architecture of the movie.

If the joke scenes work it’s in no small part because of Yeoh herself. Whenever the film engages in a kind of fraught push and pull of seriousness and silliness, it’s Yeoh who finds the necessary calibration to make both land. The film is, after all, built around her star persona in a literal and metaphysical sense. She’s human and superhuman, prophet and fool. She grounds the film when it’s on the brink of collapsing in on itself.

In a film that effortfully suggests the IRS is a bland purgatory that recalls the dull infinity of King Vidor’s The Crowd and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, it’s kind of impressive how a black butt plug can imprint its own iconography onto a movie with so much going on. Its bold, inky color mocks and imposes—but it also invites (and dares) the product development team at A24 to milk its imagery. It comes to the henchmen like a lightbulb, a mental image which was probably intentional. It’s unlikely, it’s bizarre, it’s the thing that will move the fight scene forward.

There’s a ferocity with which the two performers try to get that butt plug inside of them. Slow motion is used, and the earth quaking impact of missing his target recalls “Turn Down for What.” They desperately need something in them. They block and parry over and under cubicle desks, and one leapfrogs in an attempt to land, screeching to a near halt, on the trophy. The desk is decimated by his ass.

Its second part ends with the breaking of a meta frame, an addition to the film’s spiderweb logic, that multiple instances can be true and can occupy different planes of existence. The two henchmen launch into an attack at Evelyn, the security guard flying through the air and the paisley shirted guy slide-kicking on the ground. Time sputters and Evelyn grabs both objects by their bases and wrenches them from their bodies. This sends both characters flying, limbs akimbo. When they land, they are at once firmly people of that world and also seen from another: they’re in the movie we’re watching, but also the one action star Evelyn is at the premiere for in an alternate universe. With both DIY sex toys/powerups in hand, she pauses, looks at them, and drops them in revulsion, clutching her stomach in the process. You can hear the film audience within the film laughing if you listen closely enough.

In an interview with Vice about their viral musical video, Kwan revealed that “[Scheinert] and I had been wanting to explore male sexuality in a really weird way. For some reason our brains came up with this image, and this other universe where dudes are so pumped up on their own dicks—and they’re so into their testosterone—that the way that they show that is by breaking shit with their dicks. So, whatever happens, that would just be a funny logical progression.” The butt plug joke in Everything Everywhere All At Once is a kind of inversion of that and their Interesting Ball scene: it is not male sexuality that they are pumped up on exactly. It’s something stranger, a little more anxious. Detangling the joke from its possible implications are feasibly interesting goals for the scenario (a friend read it as more “homophilia” than “homophobia”), but that detangling is undermined by how the scene doesn’t necessarily make good on that kind of intimation. There’s possibly a version where what’s funny is what both characters are able to achieve with the objects, like Hsu’s nunchuck dildos. But as it is, it appears that what’s funny is the voraciousness with which two guys want to shove something up their asses because it’s “absurd” to do so.

Everything Everywhere All At Once implicitly seeks to recover the gap between the experiences of first generation and second generation immigrants, particularly their respective ones regarding how they encounter the world and how the world encounters them. Its other ambition is for more honest and interesting Asian representation in storytelling and filmmaking, but it does not achieve this through the lens of respectability; instead, it does so through subversion and parody, mockery and straight camp. It revs them up and explodes them, and it is through that kind of reversal that it can (mostly) land what would normally come off as pat mawkishness. Offense opens up a space for a roar of pain, unclenches a void of forgiveness, and cleaves open an expanse of love. Caked in early 2010s web trappings, it’s a newish way of doing something old, an Internet-addled journey to sincerity.

Not everything works in Everything Everywhere All At Once. But the failure of this particular joke indicates an internal incongruousness about its feelings about gender, race, and queerness. It doesn’t sink the film exactly, but it’s at odds with its supposed progressive ideals. Not a one-off joke but a set piece, one that unveils the shaky ground upon which its double-edged sincerity is built. The joke is too tied to a confluence of ideas about Asian American masculinity, queerness, and certain ideals for comedy to read as from another place, to be truly galaxy-breaking. It wants its cake and to place a butt plug in it (and laugh), too. That “having it both ways” is very of this universe. Maybe next time they’ll really take us somewhere else.