“Everything, Everywhere, All At Once” is a busy movie for a busy generation, one so caught up with school, work, mental health struggles, social media, economic instability, threats of war and hunting for Taylor Swift tickets that even if we cling onto some sort of inherent meaning in our lives, we feel like we’ll never have the chance to figure out why we do so. Not simply an inventive, breathlessly-paced mix of “The Matrix,” 2010’s internet humor and Korean romance films, it wants to be a light for our times, a be-all-end-all statement on reclaiming our purpose when purpose itself seems dead. Does it work? Not completely, but it’s a decent attempt.
The movie revolves around Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese immigrant who runs a laundromat under threat of closure due to an IRS audit. Messing with the tax obligations of a US citizen is already a lot for her to handle, but there’s more: her husband Waymond (Ke-Huy Quan) wants a divorce, her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is dating a (white!) girl, and her father “Gong Gong” (James Hong), who has already disowned her for leaving China, has arrived to visit. Right from the start, you’re thrown into her disorganized world with quick camera cuts, a nervously jangling score, and scattered dialogue. It may be all too much to handle; one could take a character’s in-world reminder to “just breathe” as a suggestion for themselves.
Then, the multiverse comes in. During a visit to the IRS office, the normally meek Waymond snaps into “Alpha” Waymond, a version of himself from a universe where Evelyn has discovered the ability to jump between alternate selves and claim their abilities. He needs this universe’s Evelyn to learn how to control the power in order to fight Jobu Tupaki, the “Alpha” version of her daughter Joy who has built a machine that can seemingly prove the non-existence of meaning in life.
While the “multiverse” has been rather popular in media for some time now, the Daniels — Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert, directors of this movie as well as the “Turn Down For What” music video — use it to a greater extent than anyone before, opening up countless jokes and ideas that range from wonderfully strange to grounded and poignant.
These include a world where Evelyn is a chef facing off against a newcomer controlled by a racoon — based off a mispronunciation of “Ratatouille” earlier — one where she learns kung-fu and becomes the star of movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once,” and yet another where evolution has shaped human fingers after hot dogs. Some ideas have better execution than others, but none are simple cutaways; the Daniels fill the movie with symbolism and dialogue that connect every little possibility to each other, and it would take several re-watches to catch all of them.
Moreover, Yeoh and Quan take advantage of this variety to give fantastic performances, melding into the absurd multiversal situations, more dramatic and emotional domestic plots, and bravely choreographed fight scenes with ease.
As wild and fun as these scenarios can be, though, the Daniels aren’t content with the movie just being a long highlight reel. Instead, they want to find a meaningful core in everything they’ve set up, reaching out for one universal truth to fight off the persistent nihilism that threatens all of it. Every little character and universe they’ve shown, racoons and hot-dog fingers included, is given a serious arc in order to prove that the power of love shines through all of it.
It’s somewhat successful; some of the plots are simply too absurd to be taken seriously when they want to be, while others, like the wonderful actor plot that homages Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, genuinely work. Yet the grand point it looks for ends up being pop-existentialism, little more than “c’mon man, just love people!”
It isn’t concerned with being very philosophical because it assumes that we’re too insignificant to know what’s going on. Maybe it’s not entirely unsound; it’s rare to see a movie that has such empathy for humanity, and it works as a sharp contrast to the pessimism taken for granted in many movies today. If someone’s looking for hope that people can be good at all, this movie does a good job to at least show the first steps toward that. Yet it wants to be more important than it actually is, and while its substance may pull one’s heartstrings, there’s not too much to grasp outside of it.
It’s great to live in a world where a movie like this can have such a wide appeal. If many modern Hollywood movies can seem sterile and corporatized, meticulously crafted to check off standardized boxes and serve nothing more than some entertainment and a good box-office gross, “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once” rebels with anarchistic glee, showing love to the past while paving the way forward for creative, non-franchise fare in theaters. Just don’t go in expecting a savior for your problems, or you’ll leave disappointed.