EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE is an instant American classic

Introduction

Hello kweens and kings. It’s time to talk about Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a comedy, drama, action film directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – collectively known as “the Daniels.” I love this movie. I love it so much that I put off reviewing it when it came out because I didn’t feel like I could articulate what this movie meant to me. This is an action movie where the central antagonist is generational nihilism – which is a topic I never shut up about. That’s partly why it was hard to write about this movie when it first came out. Since then, so much has been said about Everything Everywhere All at Once – which I will now shorthand as “Everything Everywhere”, I can’t do a nine syllable title – that I find it challenging to say something compelling. However, one of my subscribers paid for a commission to review this movie so here we are. If you’d like to commission me to review something you can purchase a commission on my Ko-fi page. The link is in the description.

There are three things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about its frenetic pacing. I want to talk about its use of absurdist humor. Finally I want to talk about its skill at depicting generational nihilism.

Background

Everything Everywhere is the second feature film from The Daniels. They previously made Swiss Army Man – another absurdist comedy drama film starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. I never saw Swiss Army Man because the premise seemed completely idiotic, but I’m told it has striking similarities to Everything Everywhere in terms of tone and themes. Swiss Army Man came out in 2016 and the Daniels have apparently been working on Everything Everywhere ever since.

The Daniels were inspired to write a story based in the multiverse a number of years ago but it took so long for them to develop the idea that many other similar projects came out first. Among these similar projects include Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse and Ricky and Morty season 2. There have been some critics of Everything Everywhere who call it derivative, but anyone who’s done professional creative work knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of a trend. Part of the delay in Everything Everywhere’s filming was the fact the movie was originally intended for a male lead — specifically Jackie Chan. However, the Daniels decided the interpersonal dynamics would work better if the main character was a mother instead of a father. The changes in script and casting caused some delays, but eventually was released through A24 earlier this year.

Premise

Everything Everywhere follows the story of Evelyn Wang and her family. Evelyn owns a laundromat business that she manages with her husband Waymond but the business is struggling. They’re currently being audited by the IRS and Evelyn is disappointed that her romantic life in America has amounted to doing laundry all day. Evelyn also has a daughter named Joy who was born and raised in America so there are cultural differences between their personalities which has strained their relationship. The film begins on a particularly busy day of Evelyn’s life as she tries to juggle her business obligations and interpersonal relationships but it clears they’re all suffering since her attention is stretched too thin.

Within the first 15 minutes of the movie Evelyn is contacted by an alternate version of her husband who informs her she’s at the center of an interdimensional crisis. Somewhere in the multiverse there is a malevolent force that’s collapsing all the timelines. This version of her husband Waymond is from the initial universe that found this problem referred to as the Alphaverse. Alpha Waymond teaches Evelyn how she can get in touch with other versions of herself in the multiverse to temporarily unlock abilities within herself so she can fight against this malevolent force when it comes for her. Shortly after this introduction, it’s revealed the source of the malevolence stems from Evelyn’s own failures in her family unit. It becomes clear that these issues need to be addressed in order to save her universe and all the others. The plot of Everything Everywhere is quite confusing but as I’ll explain in this review it doesn’t really matter.

Frenetic pacing

The reason the plot of Everything Everywhere doesn’t matter is because of its frenetic pace which it establishes from the onset. If there was a spectrum of movies with slow pacing to fast pacing, Everything Everywhere would exist at the very end of that spectrum. This movie’s pacing rivals YouTube poop videos, but the pacing isn’t fast just because it’s whacky to have fast pacing. The fast pacing accomplishes two vital functions for the story.

The first and most obvious is it makes the audience feel the same way as Evelyn. The opening 5 minutes of this film are an avalanche of a dozen different problems in Evelyn’s hectic life. We see Waymond wants to talk to Evelyn about some ominous topic, the Wang business is being audited, Evelyn’s father is visiting, Evelyn has a strained relationship with her father, there’s a ceiling tile that’s discolored, a customer is looking for her missing laundry, Evelyn’s daughter Joy is trying to learn Chinese, Evelyn also has a strained relationship with Joy, and in the middle of all that we get our first glimpse of interdimensional weirdness when we see Waymond somersaulting through the laundromat. Some of these plots and subplots are more important than others – for example the ceiling tile situation is concluded within the first 5 minutes – but the point of this sequence is to get the audience to feel overwhelmed.

Evelyn is overwhelmed by her obligations and can’t keep track which of these things vying for her attention deserves it the most. We see Evelyn is trapped by this constant assault on her attention and that leads her to form bad habits. Some issues – such as her relationship with Waymond – have been categorized as something she can ignore indefinitely. He will keep bringing up issues but she’s taught herself she doesn’t need to address it. Other issues – such as her relationship with Joy – is something she knows she needs to address but doesn’t know how to approach the issue and simply doesn’t have time to think about it. The audience learns all this information not because it is told to us, but because we feel it the same way Evelyn does. Personally, I know I started this movie wanting to know about Waymond’s issue with Evelyn but within a minute I had completely forgotten about it. It’s not until the end of this introduction sequence when we’re left to sit with Evelyn after all the chaos that we have the opportunity to remember what loose threads are still dangling. This is the moment we get introduced to the chapter title card and I remember cackling at its reveal. From the very beginning of this film, Everything Everywhere All at Once shows it’s going to be a special viewing experience.

The second important function of the pacing is it forces the audience to engage with the film intuitionally instead of through logic. This is a point a lot of amateur filmmakers get wrong – they think movies need to be a logical flow of action and reaction. It’s true a lot of mainstream film takes this approach. Mainstream film often treats the depiction of the story like it’s a court document that needs to hold up to scrutiny on if the events make logical sense. You can make movies that way if you want, but truthfully film is naturally a more intuitional artform. The audience follows the mood of a film better than its logic. This is part of the reason channels like CinemaSins or anyone who points out logical holes in a film is misguided with their critique. It is more unnatural to be actively debunking a film like it’s a debate argument. There’s nothing wrong with having a straight-forward plot progression, but one of the great things about movies is they’re closer to music than other narrative artforms. Most audiences go with the flow of what’s happening in a movie and don’t think about the practicality of it too much. A perfect example of this is the remake of Ocean’s Eleven. Ocean’s Eleven is a heist movie that has a number of payoffs when you see how the heist crew have outsmarted the antagonist. Of course, the director Steven Soderbergh has said the heist doesn’t actually make any sense and it would be impossible for the characters to pull off in real life. That doesn’t matter though because that’s not how people watch movies.

Everything Everywhere needs to break the audience out of that viewing expectation because it’s story hinges on the concept of the multiverse which is confusing. Trying to explain it would be a disaster. Everything Everywhere avoids this problem by making the pacing a film equivalent of a magician’s sleight of hand. You’re so focused on where the artist wants you to be looking that you’re unable to consider how you’re being tricked. Which isn’t to say Everything Everywhere tricks its audience, but rather it has so much going on that if it doled out its narrative at a slower pace it might give you enough space to fixate on things that aren’t vital to understanding the general narrative. Like you don’t need to know what happened to that ceiling tile, it was just a tool to make you feel overwhelmed. The fast pacing ensures the audience follows the emotion of each scene as the story progresses – which is a unique strength of this style that is effectively deployed in this film.

Absurdist humor

Another sleight of hand Everything Everywhere uses on the audience is the prevalence of absurdist humor. The humor of this film is generally used in place of more complex narrative mechanics that don’t serve the film. People have a natural disposition to expect explanations and substantive content from others, but it turns out if you say something funny people stop caring about those things. Anyone who’s watched a political debate or been humiliated in public has experienced this phenomenon. Let’s say for example you’re having a dispute with someone because they almost caused an accident in a parking lot. You may have a dashcam video as proof and other drivers who are on your side, but if the person you’re arguing with lands a clever insult that forces everyone around you to break out into laughter – you’re better off going home and forgetting about it. There’s something about comedy that is so satisfying it makes everyone forget about everything else. Everything Everywhere uses humor for that exact purpose.

The best example is the functionality of the characters accessing their multiverse alternative selves. It’s explained in the film that doing something highly unlikely will trigger a rift in the multiverse that will expose you to another interdimensional self you can tap into for a brief period of time. This – obviously – doesn’t make any sense. But it doesn’t matter because your desire to have the multiverse make logical sense has been replaced with a desire for a funny joke to land its punchline. All of the multiverse activations are very low-brow and absurd humor such as chewing chapstick, responding to threats of violence with “I love you”, or having a physical fight interrupted by a man shoving a trophy up his ass. All of these examples are funny so it doesn’t matter that the mechanics don’t line up because you’re satisfied with how it was used. Everything Everywhere uses humor in this way all the time. In fact, the Daniels even admitted in an interview they struggled with fleshing out the ideology of the antagonist of the film before deciding to shorthand it with the joke about a real “everything bagel.” They realized when the villain’s worldview was condensed to a one-liner then people stopped caring about the details of their beliefs. That example touches upon another function of its absurdist humor which is its ability to disarm the audience’s defenses against the subject material – the impact of generational nihilism.

Generational nihilism

Generational nihilism is something I talk about so frequently my friends literally tell me to shut up about it. I have a personal investment in this topic because I feel like I have experienced the entirety of the path many people find themselves on these days. I feel like I understand this issue quite serenely due to personal experience and I do what I can to help others combat it. These videos focusing on what I love about movies is part of that effort. I don’t want to get into a sob story about myself, but the short version is I was very down on myself for the majority of my life. Some of my friends might say I continue to be down on myself, but I’m optimistic now because I know it’s been worse. When I was growing up, I got this impression that people thought depression was like being sad but for a long time. You’re sad because something you hoped for didn’t happen. Maybe you wanted your crush to like you, or you wanted to get into a good school, or you wanted your parents to remember an important event in your life. But for some reason or another these things don’t happen and you’re sad about it. People think that’s depression. When you’re wallowing in your bed listening to emo music. But that’s not depression. Because when you’re sad you still care. It’s when you don’t feel anything at all that you know you’re depressed. It’s when someone asks, “what do you want do you want to do with your life?” and you can’t answer the question because you don’t care about your life. You don’t care because everything you had cared about has gone so now you associate the act of caring as a source of pain. Or as it is articulated in Everything Everywhere All at Once, when you convince yourself that nothing matters then all the pain and guilt you feel from making nothing from your life goes away. That is the dangerous allure of nihilism.

But nobody wants to talk about that because nobody wants to believe they have become so depressed they have effectively become the worst version of themselves. People often dress these things up as the result of logic. How could I be happy when the planet is dying due to climate change? How can I be happy about living in a country built off of exploitative colonialism? How can I be happy when our country is being stolen by the leftist death cult? I experience all of these statements as appeals to nihilism – which I genuinely believe is the result of people adopting religiosity around institutions and entities that were never meant to serve as religions. Things like environmentalism or activist politics. All of these things have the makings of religious belief. You’re a pure saint if you’re vegan or BIPOC or born and raised in your hometown. You’re damned or canceled if you’re not a climate activist, privileged, or if you’re “not from here.” The problem is religion – for all its many faults – is meant to be a path to the salvation of your soul. These other things don’t have that goal. Activism is predicated on being dissatisfied with the state of the world. And when you adopt that as your source of meaning and purpose in the world that’s how people convince themselves their misery is a logical conclusion. And if that’s true then their depression it’s not their fault. There’s nothing wrong with you. The world is corrupt. That’s why you’re miserable. Which is convenient, because it’s always easier to point out the flaws in others than it is to examine your own. People don’t want to talk about that and when they detect you’re trying to talk about that then they put up their defenses.

The genius of Everything Everywhere All at Once is it understands people’s hesitancy to expose themselves to this conversation and it gets around it through absurdist humor. All of the most lethal gut punches in this film are sandwiched by comedic elements. Our introduction to the villain begins with her turning police officers into glitter and speculating that a true everything bagel would look like a black hole. Just as we’re lulled into the safety of this whacky character saying silly things, that’s when she delivers the line about convincing yourself nothing matters. And immediately after that she gets flattened by a grandfather in a scooter like he’s in Mario Kart. This film is so smart about measuring the tolerance the audience has for its weighty subject material without ever making it so front and center it elicits a rejection. At the same time, there are a lot of critics of this movie who claim it’s cheesy and “basically a Marvel movie.” Whenever I come across these people, I always say to them there’s nothing wrong with the movie they’re just too depressed to enjoy things in life. This response – reliably – sends them into a berserk frenzy, which I think proves my point.

Everything Everywhere is very smart about how it approaches the topic of generational nihilism but I also really loved how it depicted the origin of this problem. I really loved how each actor portrayed their fall into nihilism as a kind of disappointment with life. More than anyone else in the cast, I think Stephanie Hsu as Joy does the best job with this. It’s probably because she’s a young person so she’s experienced it in her own life. Her delivery of short lines like “Mom” when she’s trying to introduce Becky or the “I’m tired” near the end of the movie really nail the emotion of disappointment. It’s like hearing the last remnants of someone’s hope quiver away in their voice. I think it’s smart to depict the origin of nihilism not from malevolence for the world, but disappointment in it.

It’s also very smart for the film to depict the protagonist and antagonist of this story as within the same family unit. I don’t want people to misunderstand and think I mean Joy is the real villain of this story, because if you’re paying attention you know all of Joy’s problems are the result of her relationship with her mom. So for Joy, Evelyn is the villain of this story. And funnily enough, for Evelyn her father Gong Gong is the villain of her story. Evelyn spends most of the movie fighting Gong Gong because he doesn’t agree with how she’s handling her relationship with Joy. This framing of the conflict shows how empathy is a requirement for overcoming the problem. Because when the “villain” is your own family, the solution can’t be to simply kill them or throw them in prison or whatever. I mean… for some people they might believe that’s the case but I really don’t think so. Empathy is a throughline throughout this entire film. There isn’t a single character who is villainized for their actions – even the IRS agent gets a happy ending. Find me another film that asks you to feel empathetic for someone at the IRS. Despite being a movie about nihilism – and one that’s very honest about its origins and effects – this movie is overflowing with positivity.

The positivity of this film is also intelligently handled because it’s clear the Daniels understood people would see optimism as a weakness – not a virtue. The optimism in this film is primarily derived from Waymond’s character who is generally portrayed as an unserious person. You might focus on Alpha Waymond’s martial arts abilities, but the regular Waymond pretty much does nothing but make mistakes and silly comments throughout the movie. His value comes from being optimistic. I’ve said in other videos how I typically dislike characters or movies that dole out platitudes or empty statements like “everything will be ok” because I find these statements to be isolating. If you say something so disconnected from a person’s reality than you only achieve appearing dishonest and that drives people crazy. With that said, it is an intelligent decision to frame Waymond’s approach as something that needs to be defended.

It’s not self-evident that Waymond’s optimism isn’t naïve and stupid. He even admits in the film that Evelyn sees him as weak — and I’m sure many people in the audience share that view — but this is the moment where the film shows its true strength. Because the moment when Waymond’s optimism gets its due is not because he makes a logical argument that convinces the audience. It’s part of an extended montage with a lot of stuff going on at once. There are many different scenes interspliced together and all of them have different aspect ratios, dramatic lighting, and action going on. It’s an extension of the film’s strategy of disarming the audience from their logic and from their hesitancy to engage with the film by overwhelming them with the frenetic editing and absurdist humor. The climax of this montage is when Waymond says the line “In another life, I would’ve really liked doing laundry and taxes with you.” If that scene brings you to tears – as it does for me and many others – that’s only because you’re engaging with the film on the intuitional level it wants you at. Because otherwise it wouldn’t work. It would sound overly sincere and cloying. If that scene works, then that is the film proving its point. You can spend all day convincing yourself to be miserable, but if you surrender yourself to an intuitional experience of the great joys life has to offer – that’s the way out of the misery of nihilism.

Or maybe that point isn’t proven to you and you’re left with a highly entertaining comedy drama action film, which is a pretty good outcome for most people. Personally, this film’s point landed with me and that’s why I love it so much.

Closing thoughts

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a deeply important film to me. I would give it a 5 out of 5. I genuinely see it as a modern-day miracle. It is unbelievable this film chose to tackle this subject material at all. It is even more unbelievable it is so competently made and engaging to watch. And it is extra unbelievable it has an all-star cast with one of the most iconic female actors in cinema history, an incredible comeback performance from a child actor, and that’s without mentioning Stephanie Hsu’s excellent performance, integrating James Hong – who is a film legend – and getting Jamie Lee Curtis in there as well. My only critique is Waymond’s back-to-back monologue about being kind is a little too much. I think it confuses the point in that moment and makes the movie feel longer than it actually is, but that’s literally the only problem I had with the movie. This is just a total treasure of a film.  I consider Everything Everywhere All at Once to be an instant American classic and if you haven’t seen it – you need to.

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