Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Writers: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan
The following review contains spoilers.
When Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is first told she has to save the multiverse from an omniscient being with unimaginable powers, her first reaction is, “Very busy today-uh.” We’ve seen this trope in various superhero films: The innate desire our heroes face to run away from the responsibility that inexplicably falls onto them. But Everything Everywhere All At Once gives it the most Asian twist ever. Evelyn’s excuse is that she’s a terribly busy mom, drowning in taxes, an unhappy marriage and a life full of sorrows. Saving the world could not have come at a worse time. “Just leave me out of it,” she says exasperatedly, even as her husband is taken over by a version of himself from another universe and fights off a horde of security guards with a fanny pack.
Evelyn and her family are Chinese. This is important to the story. The Chinese New Year Party she plans to throw in the evening is a heartbreaking attempt to win back a fraction of her father’s validation. The failing laundromat she is gathering tax receipts for hangs like an albatross around her neck, a reminder that she should never have come to America with her naive husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). The bitterness that cloaks their conversations – the words left unsaid or unlistened to – are terribly and specifically Asian, and it’s a beast that rears its ugliest head when Evelyn is left alone with her unhappy, queer daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). In a telling sequence, Evelyn runs after Joy, knowing that she had hurt her, by saying, “Joy, please wait, I have something to say to you.” After moments of hesitation, she says, “You’re getting fat.” As if the only form of care she could offer, and afford, was disappointment. And so when Joy is revealed to be Jobu Tupaki, the evil force taking over the world, it fits. It fits that Evelyn is the only one who can save her daughter from eternal darkness.
Everything Everywhere All At Once punctuates this existential poignancy with childish, absurd and freeing humour. The multiverse plays out as a glorious, indulgent fantasy, moulding the ashamed and unfulfilled Evelyn into a kung-fu-master-turned-filmstar (no doubt a hat-tip to Yeoh’s career as an action star in Hong Kong cinema), a Teppanyaki chef, a blind opera singer whom her father is proud of, a pizza shop sign flipper and even a rock. “The less things make sense, the better,” says Alpha Waymond (Waymond’s alternate version) at one point and this seems to be a strong guiding principle for directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Verse-jumpers can only access their other selves and their abilities by the weirdest possible action required. Chewing on a chapstick, rubbing hand sanitiser into one’s eyes and shoving a butt plug-shaped award up one’s ass are all fair ground.
But this daft sense of humour is anything but incidental. Jobu’s first meeting with Evelyn is an irreverent show of power: She shows up wearing an Elvis Presley outfit, with a pig on a leash tottering behind her and proceeds to kill several police officers, one of whom is beaten to death with a dildo. If you’re not sure whether to laugh or be filled with terror, you’re not alone. For the all-knowing all-seeing Jobu, humour is a mere consequence of a careless existence. When Evelyn transforms herself into a similar being as Jobu, all universes chattering in her head at once, she is beguiled by Jobu’s paralysing truth (represented by the all-consuming Bagel): “Nothing matters. We’re all small and stupid.” For a moment, Evelyn tastes the freeing nothingness that comes with apathy. But emptiness can hardly be considered peace. This is brought home through a surreal juxtaposition, as we see the gentle Waymond – whom Evelyn so often considers naive – fighting the same overwhelming existential dread through silly humour. The joy he derives from the smallest of things drives his kindness and equips him to deal with the overwhelming terror that accompanies the condition of being human. Waymond shows Evelyn, as a good parent shows to a young child, that courage is remaining soft in spite of fear, not in the absence of it.
Evelyn and Joy’s journey is not only the portrait of a flawed child-parent relationship but argues that perhaps that is the only way for it to be. Towards the end of the film, it can be easy to assume that Evelyn’s own journey of dealing with an unfulfilled life, of locating the pride her father always failed to feel for her will somehow redeem Joy as well. But it doesn’t. Joy is still the ball of bitter disappointment she started out as being. It is the hardest to see loved ones in despair – we bargain with, suppress and ignore their naked sadness instead; something Evelyn repeatedly engages in as she tries to blame Jobu for everything that upsets her about Joy. “You’re the reason my daughter doesn’t call anymore, why she dropped out of college, gets tattoos. You are why she thinks she is gay,” she says. Towards the end, Jobu and Joy are blurred together, standing before Evelyn in a single universe. Evelyn’s enlightenment grants her the courage to actually listen to her daughter and finally see her for the mess that she is. She gives up the facade of control and allows her daughter to slip into the abyss. The moment forms a crucial but ignored tenet of parenthood – that parents cannot save their children. And that is okay.
As a hot priest in once said, when you find someone that you love, it feels like hope. Everything Everywhere All At Once is an ode to that hope. “Our institutions are crumbling. Nobody trusts their neighbour anymore,” Waymond says at one point, echoing the increasing intolerance around the world and its consequent nihilism. On the internet, a healthy sub-culture of dark memes thrives on the idea that we’re tiny specks in a large universe so how does it matter anyway? The Daniels, through their quirky, revolutionary and thoroughly entertaining film, offer a winning perspective to our troubles: It all matters exactly because we’re small and stupid.