It’s not every day you encounter a film that is simultaneously a work of absurdist scifi, a screwball action comedy, a heartfelt drama and a meditation on intergenerational trauma among diaspora families; it’s even rarer to find one that works. Everything Everywhere All At Once is – bizarrely, delightfully, touchingly – such a film, and while it will doubtless confuse or frustrate the kind of viewer who balks at risk-taking and complexity in art, or who thinks that only serious art matters, for everyone else, it’s a masterpiece.

As hardworking migrant Evelyn Wong (Michelle Yeoh) prepares for a new year’s party, her father’s visit and the audit of the family’s small business, all while wrestling with the fact that her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has brought home a white girlfriend, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is acting strangely. There are two reasons for this: the first is that he’s procured divorce papers; the second is that he’s being periodically controlled by a different version of himself from another universe – Alpha Waymond – who believes this version of Evelyn can save the multiverse from Jobu Tupaki, a nigh-unstoppable agent of nihilistic chaos. When Alpha Waymond makes contact with Evelyn during their audit under the critical eye of IRS agent Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is catapulted out of the life she knows and into an infinite web of roads not taken. With her consciousness ricocheting between the sublime and the ridiculous reaches of reality as she learns to verse-jump, Evelyn must figure out how to save the multiverse, her family and her own small world from the terrifying despair that comes from seeing everything, everywhere, all at once – and, in the process, find out what matters most.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where Everything Everywhere All At Once turns out an ambitious failure, overwhelmed by the many balls it has in the air and unable, in the end, to juggle them. In fact, the actual film contains a meta joke to this effect: fake credits start rolling midway through, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that we’re seeing the premiere of a movie-version of these events in a different world, one where Evelyn Wong is a famous actress living a life akin to Michelle Yeoh’s. (The gag is emphasized by the inclusion of a smatter of clips of the real Michelle Yeoh attending real movie premieres, and as I was lucky enough to see this movie at the LA premiere, although sadly without the real Michelle Yeoh in attendance due to Covid, this added an extra level of meta-hilarity to the whole thing). But instead, we live in this reality: one where the film is superbly written, directed and balanced by the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) and where every cast member gives a tremendous performance, creating a narrative whose extremes somehow compliment rather than contradict one another.

In large part, this is due to excellent editing – were the transitions managed less masterfully, the whole thing would’ve come apart at the seams – but it’s also aided by a deep thematic resonance between all the disparate parts. Life is hard, says the film, and to contemplate the hugeness of the world and the smallness of your place within it is terrifying. What does anything mean, really? What can it mean, when you zoom out beyond the petty immediacy of human concerns and see how empty most of the universe is? Life is absurd for trying, absurd for being obsessed with itself; absurd for making us care about the cruel inevitabilities of death and taxes when, in the scheme of things, none of it really matters. But this is also why it matters: because we decide it does. In choosing to be kind, says the film, we choose meaning. Joy is not an inherent, finite resource we can exploit by pressing the right combination of buttons, but something we conjure over and over again, even when life is stupid; especially when it’s stupid, because stupidity might be bleak, but it can also be funny, and there’s power in laughter.

With this deeply sincere central thesis, the film is able to get away with absurdities which, in another context, might be its undoing: a universe where everyone has massively wobbly hotdog fingers, and where Evelyn and Deirdre are going through an affecting almost-breakup; a universe where an ambitious young chef is controlled by the skilled raccoon under his hat, Ratatouille-style; an extended action sequence where verse-jumping combatants gain the combat powers of their alternate selves by performing incongruous actions, including jamming suspiciously buttplug-shaped IRS awards in places buttplugs traditionally go; fights where bodies are equally likely to explode into gleaming confetti as be brutally smacked down by overlong, wobbly plastic cocks; a reality-destroying everything bagel that really does have everything on it. It’s weird and hilarious and deeply absurd in a way that evokes both Weirdmageddon in Gravity Falls and the Infinite Improbability Drive of Douglass Adams’s seminal The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but turned up to eleven a-la Spinal Tap – and yet it never undermines the serious stuff, because the whole point is that the multiverse is both absurd and meaningful, so why not laugh about it?

This attitude is personified by Waymond, a relentlessly cheerful and good-hearted man whose heroism is rooted, not just in his kindness, but in his determination to be kind. Early on, Evelyn is frustrated by her husband’s habit of putting googly eyes on everything, dismissing it as silly; but at the film’s climax, embracing that silliness becomes a form of power. A bullet pressing against her forehead becomes a googly third eye, wide open to see and welcome the absurdities of the universe. It’s ridiculous and beautiful, but as Evelyn contemplates her life and her choices – her relationships with her husband, her daughter and her father (James Hong) – she learns that it’s not enough to do one right thing. You have to keep trying – to be determinedly kind, even when it’s hard; especially when it’s hard and you don’t know what you’re doing – because that’s what makes the difference.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the film, which I’m reluctant to do: sufficed to say that Stephanie Hsu turns out a phenomenal performance, easily holding her own in scenes where veterans like Yeoh, Hong and Curtis are also being masterful. The Wong family’s relationships are a profound emotional core to the film: a literalised metaphor for the forces that can either hold the multiverse together or tear it apart. Joy wants her mother to accept her as gay instead of hiding it from her grandfather; Evelyn wants not to feel as though her life is going nowhere, a constant disappointment to herself and her father; Waymond wants to be acknowledged, his steadfast kindness and humour seen as strengths, not weaknesses. At a runtime of just over two hours, you could argue that the film ought to be tighter in places, but it’s the steady (but by no means slow) early build, establishing the family’s relationships, that cements so much of what happens later: we care about these characters, and in the moments when Evelyn’s verse-jumping brings her back to what is, for us, the real universe – her universe, the one where she started – there’s a genuine deep investment in things working out for the Wongs. Their difficulties matters, and when Jobu Tupkai’s infectious nihilism prompts Evelyn to take a google-eye-adorned baseball bat to the window of the family business, it truly feels like a world is being broken.

Generally speaking, mainstream cinema likes to avoid direct philosophical questions, which means there’s not a lot to compare it to. At various points while watching, I found myself thinking of the existential detectives from I heart Huckabees, or recalled The Dude from The Big Lebowski proclaiming, “They’re fuckin’ nihilists, Donny!”, but neither of those films is doing anything nearly so ambitious or emotionally complex as Everything Everywhere All At Once; they’re not even in the same genre. In fact, in terms of using the impossible to drive a story about the Chinese diaspora, parental pressure, trauma, disappointment and finding your place in the world, the closest film I can think of is Pixar’s Turning Red, but even that’s too simplistic a comparison, and one which only feels handy because both are recent releases dealing with (wildly different!) facets of the Chinese diaspora and the different experiences therein of grandparents, parents and children. Scifi has dealt with the multiverse before, but the two quotes that keep rattling around in my head in relation to Everything Everywhere are both from SF books rather than films or TV shows, and only one of them concerns parallel worlds.

The first is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, a specific line from which has always stuck with me: “You want to tell a story? Grow a heart. Grow two. Now, with the second heart, smash the first one into bits.” The second is from Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold, and is the closest thing I can think of to the film’s central thesis: “Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history... Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.” Evelyn’s life is one of wrenching change and poverty, though the multiverse shows her versions of her life where she’s had great wealth; yet always, always, history is there, both culturally and personally, tying her to the present moment. She has already endured pain; her daughter is Joy, and finding her is, in some ways, what the film is about. This is how she makes her own meaning in a universe – or multiverse, rather – determined not to supply it. She is a moving target, verse-jumping her way through different lives and selves in the quest of finding one that makes sense. And in the end, the message is simple: live. Live. Live.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a remarkable film: silly, dizzying, heartfelt, curious, inexplicable, brutal and, above all, kind. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Comments
  1. This movie sounds great. I’ve been looking for something fresh and intelligent, with no more dystopian futures, zombies, vampires, boring car chases, or other cliches we’ve seen too often. It would be nice to smile during an sf movie! This sounds like just the thing. Thanks for the review.

  2. lkeke35 says:

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing this since I first saw the trailer. I love well done multiverse stories so I’m here for it, and Michelle Yeoh. This is a great review. Thank you!

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