'Everything Everywhere All At Once' Is Energetic and Exasperating
Sometimes it's nice to take your foot off the gas
In Stephen Chow’s uproarious Shaolin Soccer, there’s a moment when a group of Shaolin monks, driven by defeat and humiliation, unleash their dormant kung fu powers in order to soundly beat a team of bullies. At one point, an older monk backflips onto an opponent’s stomach, like the piledriver wrestling move but with his bald head, before performing a series of somersaults, each time landing either on his feet or his head. The team’s goalie is a dead ringer for Bruce Lee and meditates by holding his body up with one arm from one of the goal posts. Near the finals, the monks face a team led by two women in dreadlocks and fake facial hair who seemingly have the ability to fly.
The movie is full of moments like these — elements of wuxia, Hong Kong wire fu, dance, soccer, and meta-comedy all exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The story, about a disgruntled monk who wishes to bring the tradition of martial arts to an out-of-touch world, is both serious and a lark. Even back in 2001 when it was released, the film rails against a modern society made cynical through commerce, technology, and literalism. Crucially, though, Chow understands that the high-flying antics of Shaolin Soccer are as much the point as any earnest paean to the transcendental importance of kung fu. The movie is a riot and a lovely underdog story at the same time.
Stephen Chow came to mind when I watched the new film from the directors Daniel, Everything Everywhere All At Once. It follows Evelyn Wang, co-owner of a California laundromat, mother to frustrated, sidelined daughter Joy, wife to lame, overbearing husband Waymond, daughter to disappointed, grumpy father Gong Gong (Cantonese for “grandfather”). Wang is played by Michelle Yeoh, Waymond by Ke Huy Quan, Gong Gong by James Hong, three acting icons in their own right who, here, repeatedly outshine one another from scene to scene. Wang’s business is being audited by the IRS where Jamie Lee Curtis’s pious Deirdre waits to crush the family’s dreams. That is, until a Waymond from an alternate universe taps Evelyn to wake up and save reality from an all-consuming entity known as Jobu Tapaki.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a maximalist film about immigrants, mothers and daughters, and the fight against nihilism. The multiverse concept allows the Daniels to unleash all manner of ingenuity and chaos to poke and prod at the drudgery of contemporary life, from droning bureaucrats to everyday racist customers to unfulfilling marriages. It also gives them the chance to do a lot of sight gags. Hot dog finger world, Raccacoonie instead of Ratatouille, pinkies with biceps. The Daniels believe in spectacle as both a vehicle for feeling and a metaphor. Speaking to Inverse, they said, “To us, the multiverse is exciting because we live in a really unique moment where there’s too much information and too many stories colliding every day in our heads. The multiverse is the perfect metaphor for what it feels like to be alive today. [Our movie] is about chaos and finding loved ones in that chaos.”
Do they succeed? The question itself comes with nauseating baggage. The amount of scrutiny an independent “genre-bending” film about Asian immigrants faces is unreasonable because the expectations for what such a film is supposed to do or comment upon are also unreasonable. As a result, hyperbole becomes rampant when it comes to stating the significance of a film like this, which, by the time I finally saw it, was talked about as the best movie in a decade.
To their credit, the Daniels are as in love with their cast as they are with their own ideas.
The hype isn’t necessarily the Daniels’s fault, but as I watched the film I got the feeling that the directors were priming themselves for congratulations. One of the more outlandish concepts, which is saying something, is that Evelyn can tap into the skill sets and emotions from any of her alternate lives. This is called “verse-jumping.” The catch is that she has to perform increasingly weird tasks in order to do so. Blow on a bad guy’s nose. Give yourself paper cuts. Stick a trophy up your ass. Each act links to a different reality where Evelyn might have been a professional singer or a janitor, but the film stresses that every version has something to offer. In one scene, Evelyn utilizes the heightened sensory abilities of a deaf alternate to fight in a dark, smoky room. In another, she knocks someone out with a finger. As a result, Everything Everywhere All At Once is full of virtuoso sequences as ridiculous as they are impressive, propelled by the Daniels’s self-satisfied enthusiasm and refusal to pick one aesthetic when ten are available. It’s not that they aren’t accomplished. It’s more that you can hear them high-fiving in the background.
To their credit, the Daniels are as in love with their cast as they are with their own ideas. Michelle Yeoh is magnetic, the balancing act of physical comedy, melodrama, and breathless exposition dovetailing with her grace as a martial artist and the meta legacy of her career. James Hong, an actor I grew up watching, one of the most underrated comic performers alive, is an utter delight, an old pro game for anything you could throw his way. But Ke Huy Quan is the real revelation — an over-the-top wimp one second, a stoic badass the next, convincingly switching between both, and many other modes, with glee. To see Quan — mostly remembered as Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — given the chance to play so many wildly different iterations of the same character, in effect starring in multiple films at the same time, is the most profound aspect of Everything Everywhere All At Once. It is a triumph that only points to the infuriating oversight that Quan, giving one of the best performances of the year, could have been performing at this level the whole time.
Recently, Kogonada, director of Columbus and After Yang, tweeted, “Less is not always more. Sometimes more is more. See EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE. A triumph of the more. The Daniels find meaning in the all-at-onceness of our metamodern existence. In the everything and everywhere.” It’s true that less is not always more, but more isn’t always more either, and something gets lost in the chaos. Often, the action of the film is undergirded with an abundance of emotion. After all, this is a film that places the fate of mankind on the backs of a normal struggling family. Joy, Evelyn’s daughter, feels neglected by her busy, sometimes cruel mother, who still hasn’t told Gong Gong that Joy is gay. Waymond, seemingly delusional in his optimistic outlook on life, futilely tries to serve Evelyn divorce papers as a means of getting her attention. Gong Gong, bitter and impatient in his old age, regrets how his daughter turned out. With each verse-jump, Evelyn is privy to a constellation of possibilities where each of these dilemmas either worked out or only got worse.
At the film’s heart is the fight to be understood, to forgive, to withstand all the jaded microaggressions of life that lead to the feeling that nothing matters. Even though Everything Everywhere All At Once is almost two-and-a-half hours long, this idea is oddly truncated, conveyed not through drama but through exposition. It takes multiple subtlety-throttling scenes for the Daniels to lay out just what is going on, what it means, and why it matters. Late in the film, Joy and Evelyn jump to a universe where life didn’t pan out on Earth and they exist as two stones in the middle of a barren desert. Dialogue is presented in subtitles, with close-ups of the rocks and shots of the scenery drawing out the twee sincerity and sucking out the comedy as the scene drags. By this point, the audience understands in schematic terms what Everything Everywhere All At Once is trying to say. But the actual work of successfully saying what you mean can be as elusive for the Daniels as it is for Joy and Evelyn.
It’s unlikely that there will be another film this year or next that looks and sounds and moves the way this one does and for a lot of viewers, that’s more than enough. Earnest sentiment reigns supreme, the production is tight, snappy, and gorgeous, and the stakes are as high as they come. But one wonders what the directors could have done with less. Critic Adam Nayman asks the same question in his review of the film. “There’s a difference between shooting your shot and emptying the chamber, and the question of whether Everything Everywhere All at Once needed to be an epic is worth asking. It’s possible that the Daniels are so in love with their own ingenuity that they simply couldn’t help taking things to the limit.” It’s fitting that the limit, in all its head spinning glory, is being hailed as the film’s crowning achievement. The Daniels energetically, exasperatingly take every opportunity to impress upon you their creativity and their passion for this story and the people in it. Maybe there’s a universe out there with a version of this film that pulls back a little and invites the audience to feel the same way. I’d like to see it.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.