Everything, Everywhere, All at Once begins as a reflection in a mirror. We enter the opening scene through the looking glass, and everything is topsy turvy for the next 2 1/2 hours, with endless, everchanging possibilities inside a boundless multiverse.
This is a movie you either love or hate. I happen to love it. (More about the hate later.) I mean, who doesn’t want to spend two hours in a universe where the villain is an IRS agent played by Jamie Lee Curtis in a sloppy fatsuit with a really bad haircut? Curtis fully embraces this role of frumpy maniacal villain who sometimes has hotdogs for fingers and plays the piano with her toes. In my favorite scene, she is kneeling on a stair landing like a hungover frat boy with her head smashed through the wall. Isn’t that where most IRS agents belong? (No, uptight people, I am not recommending that this happen.)
And who wouldn’t like the opportunity to go back to those moments of great decision when our lives took a significant turn, to see and experience “the road not taken”? To know what might have been? I think of those decisions often, and wonder where those paths would have led me. Would I be happier there? Or is there really no place like home?
Who doesn’t want to spend two hours in a universe where the villain is an IRS agent played by Jamie Lee Curtis in a sloppy fatsuit with a really bad haircut?
In the opening scene, everything seems to be happening at once. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) are Chinese immigrants who live above their faltering laundromat. Waymond is preparing to hand Evelyn divorce papers. Evelyn is preparing for a tax audit. Their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is preparing to introduce her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to the family as her romantic interest. Evelyn’s father Gong Gong (James Hong, of Seinfeld’s “Party of Four?” fame), who disapproved of their marriage, is preparing to visit the family. And all of them are preparing for a big party to be held in the laundromat later that evening.
Evelyn’s life was once full of hope, love, and possibilities. But none of it turned out as she expected. Waymond (not the Waymond who lives above the laundromat, but the one who has been searching the multiverse for her) says, “I know you. With every passing moment you feel you missed the chance to make something of your life.” This is true, and my heart understands how she feels. Then Waymond declares, “Every rejection, every disappointment, has led you here to this moment. Don’t let anything distract you from it.” Thus Evelyn’s great adventure to save the world — or perhaps only her own world, which, after all, is the world — begins with a choice: turn left to stay where you are, or turn right to accept the challenge. Evelyn swipes right.
Every multiverse story has its own set of rules. In this story, verse-jumpers can accumulate skills learned by their alter egos in other worlds simply by entering another existence and downloading that version’s experiences. Evelyn is living her worst self. She is devoid of accomplishment — and that makes her full of potential. She becomes a kind of super Evelyn with every memory and every skill, mowing down the enemies of the universe through superhuman martial arts and increasingly crazy weapons. Even, at one point, a fanny pack.
At first Evelyn uses her newfound skills to fight. It’s the only metaphor she knows for saving the world.
To jump into a brand-new multiverse, whether to escape a current battle or to garner an essential new skill, travelers must do something that has never been done before in any of the existences — something outrageously original. I like this metaphor for being an original thinker, a creator, because it allows for free will — fate does not control outcome in this film. The need to do something completely untried and unexpected also leads to some outrageously funny scenes.
Now for the haters. I’ve encountered two major criticisms of this film. First is the criticism of the multiverse genre — if possibilities are endless, then there is no continuity of character or outcome, no “truth” about the storyline. That is certainly true of the plethora of superhero films with crossover characters whose backstories change to fit each film, using the excuse that “this is a different multiverse.” Cheap scriptwriting, for sure. And very unsatisfying.
The other criticism is the statement, “Nothing matters,” made by a significant character. If anything can happen, then nothing really matters, right? Anything can be changed. Choices don’t have consequences. Why bother watching a film with no concrete outcomes?
I want to live in a world where “every rejection, every disappointment” can lead an out-of-work Vietnamese refugee child actor to the role of a lifetime and an Oscar acceptance speech.
But this statement is made midway through the film. By a character who changes. It’s not a truth — it’s a truism to be challenged. And conquered.
At first Evelyn uses her newfound skills to fight. It’s the only metaphor she knows for saving the world — the one every superhero story turns to. But Waymond — not alpha Waymond, but the milquetoast Waymond, who loves her in the laundromat universe — teaches her a greater truth: you can save the world by providing what people want and need, instead of fighting them. Understanding saves. Empathy is the key. Love conquers all. In fact, Waymond has served Evelyn the divorce papers to end the fighting. Because he loves her.
And that’s why this film works, and why it won so many Oscars last week. In this divisive, hate-filled, destructive world we have created, this film offers hope — hope that there is more than one way to end a war. You can defeat your enemies through force, or you can make them your friends through persuasion. That’s the multiverse I want to live in.
And I want to live in a world where “every rejection, every disappointment” can lead a virtually washed-up, out-of-work Vietnamese refugee child actor (Ke Huy Quan) to the role of a lifetime and an Oscar acceptance speech for the record books. A world in which a talented, beautiful daughter of two beautiful and celebrated movie stars (Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) can win an Oscar for her exuberant portrayal of a frumpy, tyrannical IRS agent just looking for love. A world in which the possibilities are endless.
“Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. A24, 2022, 139 minutes.