'Everything Everywhere All At Once': More Than an Immigrant Story, a Leap Across Many Worlds

The film shows stunning imagination and ambition, cool but with some banal preaching.

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Everything Everywhere All At Once opens to a Chinese immigrant family. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) are struggling to run a laundromat. About to get audited by an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officer, Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), the Wangs are worried that their bills don’t add up. Their problems are both personal and professional.

Evelyn doesn’t know that Waymond wants a divorce. She’s also embarrassed of her lesbian daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), hiding her sexual orientation from her maternal grandfather (James Hong). This is not a family but a house of cards: a determined whiff can topple it.

The director duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (or “Daniels”) create an arresting mood. The camera movements are motivated and kinetic: tracking shots capture the laundromat’s chaos; a quick pan shows the leaking ceiling. The production design is precise: the Wangs’ house and laundromat, much like their lives, are littered with things they don’t know they don’t need. Less than 10 minutes have passed, and you feel as stuck and claustrophobic as them.

I was just about to relax into an absorbing immigrant drama — say, something like The Farewell (2019) or Minari (2020) — when Daniels, in essence, tells me, “Forget this film. Forget everything. Immigrant drama? LOL.” Let me explain: To make movies interesting, I don’t watch their trailers, don’t read up on them, don’t want to know anything about them. So, I had no idea about this film, except that it was critically acclaimed, quirky, and sci-fi. I had no idea that I’d spent my next 130 minutes in a whirlpool of martial arts, superhero bonanza, nihilism, absurd comedy, melodrama, and the constant feeling of what-exactly-is-going-on-and-can-someone-tell-me-if-it’s-legal.

Enduring Deirdre’s endless interrogation, Evelyn flips her shoes and literally enters a different dimension. In this world – part of a huge multiverse, where people can “verse jump” (moving from one alternate universe to another) – she must confront and defeat a supervillain, Jobu Tupaki, a vicious version of Joy.

Projecting her own failures on her daughter, even in the “Alphaverse” (where people can access skills and memories across the multiverse), Evelyn broke her daughter. How did Evelyn get the idea of flipping her shoes? Her husband from Alphaverse, Alpha Waymond, told her in the elevator a few minutes before the IRS meeting. She is, in fact, the late Alpha Evelyn, who had developed the verse-jumping technology. It rests on a simple principle: Every choice we make creates an alternate universe, where a person lives a parallel life with special skills.

Evelyn had many desires – she wanted to be a martial arts expert, an actor, a chef – and so, using verse-jump, can access those powers to defeat her nemesis, Jobu, who wants to destroy the Alphaverse with a black hole shaped like a… bagel.

This is an incredibly ambitious movie. It expects us to not invest in a world but worlds. Not one version of a character but many. The tone changes so quickly and drastically that you’re always trying to catch up. It must accomplish all this (and more) while telling a central cohesive story and its many offshoots. Yet, for the large part, everything not just adds up but elevates the experience. That is so because this film has perfected, what I like to call, the ‘Rajamouli trick’: conceive a nutty world, fill it with inventive visual imagination, and then go all in.

That conviction, I’ve realised, leaves a mesmerising effect. In the age of meek and needy directors – craving (critical or box-office) validation – what is to not love in a movie that does its own rambunctious dance?

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I was absolutely bewitched by its pitch-perfect choreographed action sequences. The shrooming camera, the exaggerated sound design, the rapid cuts further heighten the effect. And suddenly, it all gets over, and we’re transported to a quiet pavement, where alternate versions of Evelyn and Waymond reflect on missed chances.

Where have we seen this before? Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Or how about a setting that doesn’t have a ready reference point? A poignant love story between Evelyn and Deirdre, where their fingers are made of… hot dogs. The performances are terrific across the board, especially Yeoh who, as different versions of Evelyn, transitions from disinterested to ferocious to compassionate with stunning ease.

But nothing can prepare you for a set-piece that introduces Jobu vanquishing her opponents in one clean sweep that’d have made Kill Bill’s Crazy 88 sweat. A scene so good that I’ll buy a ticket, enter the theatre, watch that bit, and step out. That’s the thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once: It makes you feel alive.

Amid all this, there’s a constant undercurrent of thematic tension and commentary: Evelyn’s utter inability to embrace her own self (or rather selves), hope wrapped in a small profound line (“the universe is so much bigger than you realise”), the unique love between Evelyn and Waymond, across the universes, that flickers, survives, dies, resurrects. Sometimes the movie becomes transcendental – and funny – such as the conversation between Evelyn and Joy in a world where they’re rocks.

But two main problems dilute its impact. Some overlong set-pieces exhaust their ingenuity and stall tension, especially as they pop up among contemplative scenes. The constant verse-jumps, which risk resembling a shtick, seem more and more random. The second, and a much bigger problem, is a forced spiel about the current state of the world. In an early scene, Waymond says, quite abruptly, “Our institutions are crumbling and nobody trusts their neighbours, how can we get it back?” I sat up, wondering, “Where did that come from?” It feels as if after writing the screenplay, Daniels sought the help of a political op-ed writer wanting to make it ‘relevant’.

For a movie brimming with stunning imagination, some of its messages are remarkably preachy and direct. Towards the end, we get, “We’ve to be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” It’s preceded by, “Seeing the good side of things is not being naïve.” Both statements are perfectly valid – a bit too valid, in fact, resembling those long Twitter threads peddling banal truism.

Or how about its villain’s philosophy that tries so hard to mean something: “Nothing truly matters.” When in doubt, rely on nihilism: It sounds sufficiently cool, distant, and cruel but when not used well – and this movie, like many others, doesn’t use it well – it also feels evasive, vapid, and pretentious, like those college kids who have figured out the world after reading The Fountainhead. Everything Everywhere All At Once didn’t need such crutches or desperate intellectual lunges, because here two rocks can melt stone-cold hearts.