Everything Everywhere All at Once

There's a problem I've talked about before on this blog, of trying to review something really good and not knowing what to say about it beyond "it's really good, guys". When a work is bad, or even just flawed, you have an access point. When something works on all levels, though, it can be hard to tease out the threads that makes that success happen, to find the specific selling point that might attract an audience to it. That problem is compounded in the case of A24's sci-fi extravaganza Everything Everywhere All at Once—a film that, in my reckoning, is currently in the running for the best movie of 2022. True to its name, this is a film that is doing, and about, so much at any given moment that to focus on any specific aspect of it runs the risk of getting pulled down a rabbit hole, bogged down in specifics while losing sight of the whole.

See, for example, how much there is to say just in summing up the film's plot. Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, a harried, middle aged laundromat owner who, on the day the film takes place, is having to deal with: an IRS audit, a visit from her estranged father (James Hong), her unhappy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) trying to force a conversation about the problems in their marriage by serving her with divorce papers, and her daughter Joy's (Stephanie Hsu) desire to introduce her grandfather to her girlfriend. Before any of that can be addressed, however, Waymond is taken over by an alternate universe version of himself (known as Alpha Waymond) who informs Evelyn that, in his universe, she was a scientist who discovered a method of sending consciousnesses across the multiverse, and that in her pursuit of that knowledge, she shattered the mind of her own daughter, transforming her into the nihilistic supervillain Jobu Tupaki, who is intent on destroying all universes. 

And this, really, is only the setup—the plot gets more complicated going forward, and a lot of the implicit assumptions in the previous paragraph are challenged and exploded. The story proceeds across multiple universes: one where Evelyn and Waymond are trapped in the IRS building by Jobu and her henchmen and have to fight their way out; one where they go back home and have to grapple with their mundane relationship problems; one where Jobu is pursuing Alpha Waymond and his fellow warriors; and several others that range from ordinary (a world where Evelyn is a martial artist and movie star whose career just happens to mirror Yeoh's) to bizarre (a world where everyone has hot dogs instead of fingers). Evelyn's consciousness is constantly hopping between these universes, and other characters—especially Waymond and Joy—are frequently replaced by their alternates, switching on a dime from ally to foe to innocent bystander.

This is all executed with impressive verve by writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. From the impeccable and inventive fight scenes, to the production design—the layers of clutter in Evelyn and Waymond's apartment, the increasingly zany outfits that Jobu cycles through—to the way that the different universe storylines are stitched together to create a coherent, and yet incredibly busy and eventful, narrative, to the instantly iconic imagery—like the googly eyes that Waymond glues on everything in his vicinity that end up representing both his outlook on life, and the enlightenment Evelyn is seeking—Everything Everywhere is, first and foremost, a stunning technical achievement. But that's really just another way of saying "it's really good, guys". What makes this movie special isn't how accomplished it is (though that is, to be clear, something to celebrate, especially in a low-budget, indie movie), but what it ends up using that skill for, and what it ends up being about. And there, again, you run into the risk of getting bogged down in specifics.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I could talk about when talking about Everything Everywhere All at Once. I could discuss the fact that this is the first worthwhile showcase that Hollywood has given Yeoh since she burst onto Western audiences' consciousness twenty-five years ago in Tomorrow Never Dies, and how it shows off not only her skills as an action heroine, but as a dramatic actress and a comedienne. I could mention that matching Yeoh beat for beat is Quan, the former child star who played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, who has spent the intervening decades behind the camera as a stunt choreographer, but who returns to the screen now in what should be a star-making turn. I could point out that the film functions as a culmination of two of the early 2020s' favorite tropes—multiverses and generational trauma—while managing to put its own unique spin on them. I could discuss its myriad references, to everything from Pixar movies to art-house Asian cinema. I could say that it feels, entirely unexpectedly, like the Matrix sequel we deserved instead of the one we got (and I say this as someone who is generally positive towards The Matrix Resurrections, but Everything Everywhere does a lot of what it was trying to do, backwards and in heels). I could discuss how this film addresses such topics as the immigrant experience, middle aged disappointment, homophobia, living with ADHD and depression, and Buddhist enlightenment. And honestly, at that point there would still be a lot of things to say.

The problem—or, well, "problem"—is that Everything Everywhere All at Once is fractally excellent. No matter how far you drill down you find an attention to detail, a commitment to taking things to the next level, that can take your breath away. In an early scene in the movie, Evelyn tries to explain to Waymond and Joy that they have recently been taken over by their alternates. Evelyn likens it to the physical control exerted on the chef character in Ratatouille. Except that, to Joy's wry bemusement, she calls the film Racaccoonie, insisting that the animal chef was a raccoon rather than a rat. In the moment, this feels like an illumination of Evelyn's character—the fact that she's a middle aged Chinese immigrant who probably isn't au fait with American children's movies; or the fact that she has been characterized by mingled distraction and laser focus, fixating on certain things with such force that she won't allow anything to distract her from them, even if it turns out she's gotten them completely wrong. But then an hour later, Evelyn travels to an alternate universe where she's a hibachi chef, and discovers that her showboating colleague Chad (Harry Shum Jr.) has a raccoon under his toque who is controlling his actions. By the end of movie, an entire subplot has been dedicated to Evelyn exposing Chad to health inspectors, then helping him rescue Racaccoonie from animal control.

And that, I think, is the one bit of unified, all-encompassing praise I can offer Everything Everywhere All at Once: it's a movie that is constantly dedicated to taking it up a notch. It takes a lot of stories we're familiar with, then adds another—or several—turns of the screw. It's a story about an anonymous loser who discovers that they are actually incredibly special, but whereas most stories like this focus on young people, here the heroine is middle aged and trying to come to terms with the fact that she's probably made all the big choices in her life already—and what makes her special, it turns out, is that all those choices were the wrong ones. (Also, let's not ignore how unusual it is for a woman to be the protagonist of this sort of story, much less a woman of color.) Like the Matrix, the technology in the movie allows you to download skills in an instant, but the method of achieving this is incredibly weird—you have to do something highly unlikely, like getting four paper cuts on your hand, and often embarrassing, like peeing yourself. Like a lot of recent stories, the crux of the film is generational trauma, but Evelyn is both the victim of it—her father cut off contact with her after she left China with Waymond—and the perpetrator of it, in her refusal to accept Joy's queerness. Even crass, throwaway jokes benefit from the film's commitment to the bit. When Evelyn and Waymond meet with their IRS agent Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis), she shows off a shelf of trophies whose shape is bizarrely reminiscent of butt plugs. Before the film is over, a major fight scene will hinge on whether Evelyn can prevent two opponents from sticking those trophies up their butts.

Despite the silliness of that last example, what I appreciate about Everything Everywhere is how each of those turns of the screw ultimately function as a way of holding Evelyn to account, refusing to let her off with platitudes or shallow heroism. The crux of the film is Evelyn and Joy's relationship, making it, on one level, yet another story about an Asian parent coming to terms with her child being gay. But the film goes to some surprisingly dark places with this premise, making it clear just how uncomfortable Evelyn is with Joy's difference, how in her mind, it has become emblematic of everything that feels wrong and unwholesome about her life, and how much she has to unlearn before she can begin to fix her relationship with her daughter. Evelyn starts the movie believing that she needs to destroy Jobu in order to save Joy (and explicitly, save her from being gay). She can't truly become a heroine until she accepts Jobu as a part of her daughter, as yet another person she needs to save. 

And that, ultimately, is the essence of the movie. At every turn, it takes its familiar science fiction tropes and rejects their militarism and triumphalism. The true magic of universe hopping isn't that you can learn kung-fu in an instant, but that you can learn empathy for versions of yourself that are entirely different from you—and maybe, through doing so, learn to have empathy for yourself, to forgive the mistakes and failures that have led to an unsatisfying life. The evil henchmen, and even the demanding IRS agent, turn out to be full human beings with feelings that can be hurt, and should be soothed. The sexy, take-charge version of your husband maybe understands less about the world than the guy who wants to put a little more happiness into it by gluing googly eyes on everything. Victory comes not from defeating what's different from you, but from embracing it. 

Which sounds sappy and maybe a little too pat, but the film earns that sappiness. It does this, first and foremost, through how it constructs Evelyn. Yeoh and the filmmakers aren't afraid to let Evelyn be unsympathetic—first, by failing to notice how much she's hurt the people she cares about, and then, by becoming so consumed with the idea that she is secretly a superhero that she forgets the real work she needs to do to repair those relationships. By reveling in Evelyn's flaws, Everything Everywhere makes her eventual realization of what she has to do to be the hero her family needs feel substantial and meaningful. And it is precisely the film's busyness, the constant onslaught of information from a myriad alternate universes, that helps to sell the idea that there's more to the world than Evelyn's narrow conception of it, that she absolutely must open her mind and heart to all that variety and difference if she's to save the day. Which means we've circled right back around to "it's really good, guys". This film was an incredible swing that would have collapsed in on itself if any aspect of it—the writing, the acting, the humor, the design—hadn't been note-perfect. And so, even though I still don't feel that I've fully captured its specialness, I remain incredibly grateful that it exists.

Comments

Eric Scharf said…
Smart essay on the impossibility of doing justice to this film. It is the only film in recent memory that I recommend to absolutely everyone without qualification. It is also unique in that I can fully "explain" the multiverse set-up without spoiling a thing.

Just to add the unending roster of moments of fractal delight: I laughed out loud in the theater when I realized that when Jamie Lee Curtis was shambling around the IRS office, slowly pursuing Michelle Yeoh, Curtis was moving exactly like Michael Myers.
Retlawyen said…
It took me an embarrassingly long time to see this movie, because of what I like to call Hamilton Syndrome. All the progressive people I know who do movie recs were trumpeting its praises, but they were bound to do that anyway for inclusion reasons.

Just wanted to echo OP's praise here. This is a spectacular movie, not in the 'the actors are defeating the cisheteropatriarchy by virtue of their existence' sense (although, sure, it is also that) but in the 'you will experience joy while watching it' sense. OP is 1000% correct, you should see this movie.
All the progressive people I know who do movie recs were trumpeting its praises, but they were bound to do that anyway for inclusion reasons.

Wow, it's almost as if thinking that people only make cultural determinations based on political preconceptions is a dumb thing to assume.

At any rate, don't put shit like this on my blog again, or it'll be deleted. And no, this is not an invitation for debate.
Noah Motion said…
I appreciate your description of how hard it is to do this movie justice. I would also like to add that, every time the movie turns things up another notch, it does so in a very matter of fact way, somehow never feeling (to me, anyway) clumsy or ham-handed. I've seen people complain about some of the really silly things, but they all worked really well for me, I think because the movie is so fully committed to its premise. It's a really remarkable film. All of the performances are great, but I thought Yeoh was just incredible.
3Phen said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
3Phen said…
I've seen people complain about some of the really silly things, but they all worked really well for me, I think because the movie is so fully committed to its premise.

Exactly! The silliest examples of alternate universes are comic relief and nail down one corner of the movie's tone, but they're also critical for how they give examples to the claim that other universes and selves really ARE incomprehensibly varied -- that when it says "everything" it means "everything", and even the 'comedy universes' end up mattering, and that's the point.

I'm just scratching around the edges here, but it's one of the most impressive things to me: this movie covers a huge variety of subjects and variety of tones, but none of them are separate -- each tone helps what the movie's doing with each other tone, each subject plays a key part in each other subject. And when I write that out, it strikes me that that interconnectedness is itself resonant with and part of the movie's themes. It's ridiculous. I'm in awe.
"...Everything Everywhere All at Once is fractally excellent."

Thank you for this terrific review. and for coining a phrase to describe this remarkable film. Your words crystallize what makes the movie so delightful and poignant.
Mr K said…
I think "Racacoonie" may be my favourite joke in any film I've ever seen. As you say, the scene where she mentions it is great; its funny and is rich with character. And then the reveal of the "Real" racacoonie is such an expected payoff it got such a huge laugh. And then the commitment to actually having an emotional payoff to what could have been a throwaway gag.

I mean honestly; the rocks, then the googly eyes on the rock!

This is probably now my favourite movie, I will rave about it to anyone who will listen
Standback said…
Abigail, I want to thank you for all your writing and enthusiasm about the film -- it's what pushed this up to Go See Now, which we did last night, and it was fantastic.

I love how the movie builds up so, so much, so so carefully. Every step feels like, yes, there's the punchline, that's the payoff, it *works* and it's satisfying, -- but no, the movie's building higher than that, there's still more to go.

And where it does wind up -- oh, I love it. It's not just a carefully-contrived moment of enlightenment and serendipity, "oh all these threads WOUND UP coming out just write." It's like Zelazny's Amber, riding out into the shadows to *seek out and find* the thing you need, however far that takes you -- but with personal connection and empathy, not just tactics and custom weaponry.
(And, oof, even that traces right back to the beginning -- where the first step of jumping is doing *something*, anything, that is *strange and unsettling to you*. It's not just a random ha-ha Heart-of-Gold probability drive -- it's getting out of your comfort zone.)

It's not just that "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is really good.
It's that it's wholeheartedly subscribed to "whatever you are, be a good one,"
chosen a great, intriguing, unusual thing to be,
and set out to be superb at it.

Popular posts from this blog

Dune

2021, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

Recent Movie Roundup 36