Review: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Among the infinite multiverse, we happen to live in a timeline where it was decided to make a film that is both attractive and repellant, which cannot be dismissed, because it is brilliant, but cannot be recommended, because it is ugly and absurd.

If I may indulge in excessive understatement, this film is difficult to assess.

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (2022) is an absurdist science fiction action-comedy, directed by  Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.

It is funny, but also bitter. It is deep, but dark. Not for children.

Would that I lived in the nearby parallel timeline, one perhaps not far away, where only a few images, lines, or plot points were only slightly different, this film would have a strong recommendation from me.

As it is, I can only recommend it to viewers with a different sense of taste or sense of decency from my own: but those viewers, I can assure you, will enjoy this film as a masterpiece and triumph, because the film actually is moving, wildly original, and deep.

If you are like me, however, you might enjoy it if you overlook the way it looks, if you overlook the uncritical affirmation of sexual deviance as a norm, and if you can ignore several of the grotesque excesses, including trouserless men with pixelated rumps sodomizing themselves with phallic desk ornaments during a fight scene, played for laughs.

And, if you are like me, you will think the depth does not go deep enough to make up for this gross unsightliness.

More than wildly original, this film is insanely original, if not just insane. If you can find yourself in sympathy with the insanity, you will enjoy this film tremendously; if not, you will be confused, perhaps offended.

And your ear may be confused in any case, as the film is partly in English, and partly in Mandarin.

Michelle Yeoh and James Hong are two of my favorite stars. Michelle Yeoh is best known for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Ang Lee’s martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); James Hong won my undying admiration for his iconic performance as David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), not to mention being the voice of Chi Fu in Disney’s Mulan (1998).

Ke Huy Quan was last seen in American film playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

It also stars Jamie Lee Curtis, who turns in a brilliant comedic performance.

Indeed, all of the performances were topnotch, particularly since each character is several different characters, each from a parallel life, whose tone and body language must parallel without overlapping the tone and demeanor of his other doppelgangers.

And yet, just from a change in voice or expression, the viewer should have no trouble telling which version is which, even when the characters turn into rocks.

Jamie Lee Curtis playing the tough but overly weary IRS auditor, comedic yet menacing, plays the weeping and jilted lover in a parallel universe where human evolution never developed fingerbones.  The range needed to portray such absurd scenes with subtlety and power is beyond most actresses: Curtis does so with effortless-seeming brilliance. And all the actors and actresses in all their parallel cross-time roles do likewise.

In all this madhouse impromptu jazz cacophonous symphony, was not one false note.

The film is in three acts, helpfully labeled (1) Everything, (2) Everywhere, (3) All At Once.

The premise of the film is that, out of the infinite variations of myriad parallel timelines, each created by a different set of choices and events, there is one woman who, in our timeline, made all the worst choices, and never developed any of her myriad talents, skills, interests and abilities.

Her name is Evelyn Wang, and she runs a laundromat. Everything of Evelyn’s life is going wrong.

Business is failing; she is being audited by the IRS; she has to organize a Chinese New Year’s celebration; her quarrelsome and disapproving father Gong Gong (Chinese for “maternal grandfather”) has just arrived stateside; her quirky and mild-mannered husband is preparing to serve her divorce papers; her estranged daughter Joy has become a lesbian, and wishes the family to accept and approve of her shaven-headed girlfriend.

In the midst of the IRS audit, at the worst possible time, her mild-mannered husband is possessed by the mind and memory of the heroic crosstime-projecting version of her husband, from the Alpha timeline, where Evelyn is the brilliant inventor who discovered crosstime projection.

No one physically moves from one universe to the next, but the mind, memories and skills can be swapped between parallel doppelgangers.

This Alphaverse version of her rabbitty husband, Alpha Weyland, shifts her into a splinter parallel universe in the janitor’s closet to explain about a possible oncoming time-apocalypse, while, simultaneously, her other self is still being grilled by the increasingly impatient IRS auditor. And she has to keep track of both highly tense scenes at once.

Alpha Weyland is fighting a secret war across all the timelines against an insane cosmic threat called Jobu Tupaki. What or who this Jabberwocky name represents is unclear at first.

Alpha Waymond explains that Evelyn is the sole soul in the multiverse in position to help them.

Apparently, sadly, being a total failure, she has the most access to the highest number of possible parallel possibilities, which the Alphaverse technicians can switch into her mind at need.

This is where the sheer brilliance of this movie comes in, as the movie fractures into more and more parallel stories, all being told at once.

The comedic scenes are comedies of error, sad but funny, sometimes hysterical, sometimes insane; and the absurdist art direction and dialog is truly absurd.

For example, Evelyn does not notice that that instructions left by Alpha Wayland are written on the back of the divorce papers served by Local Wayland, so that as the two exchange increasingly confused and painful dialog, each is looking at the opposite side of the paper being flourished between them, when one is talking about the time-apocalypse, and the other about a divorce.

For another example, the mind-switching is not possible unless the target does something so remarkably unlikely, such as eat a stick of lip-balm, that the probability matches an unlikely alternate universe, so the two minds of the two dopplegangers can be connected briefly.

At that moment, a lifetime of some needed skill, whether it be the lung-control of a singer, or the spatula juggling of a stirfry-cook, or the pinky-fu martial arts of an unlikely martial artist, can be access and used.

So each fight scene, as agents from parallel timelines are swapped into the bodies of the locals, is prefaced by some unlikely, comical, or absurd act, sometimes dangerous or disgusting.

Because only skills, and not weapons, can be passed between universes, as is only befitting for a Michelle Yeoh film, all the fight scenes are between martial artists. But there is also a hilarious, crazy scene where Evelyn has the skills of a streetside sign-twirler, using to great effect while wielding a riot shield.

The comedy is absurdist, and the imagery is meant to be jarring. It is dark comedy, meant for the cynical.

Like all good comedy, there is a heart of tragedy in this film. Everything Evelyn ever daydreamed, every hobby she never followed up on (which she also wrongly claimed as business expenses during her audit) is true in another universe. But not in this one. Somehow, she makes this a source of strength.

In the second act, one of the dangers of crosstime projection comes to the fore: if overused, one’s mind becomes interconnected with the minds of all one’s doppelgangers throughout the universe, so that every decision is both made and not made, and one cannot keep track of which world is which, where one is, what is happening.

Her demanding and disapproving father, in the Alpha Universe, demands the death of Joy, her daughter, to save the multiverse from destruction. Evelyn follows her daughter, who both is and is not her enemy, into madness.

Here the storytelling becomes wild and experimental, and images from the lives of Evelyn which might have been fly past in rapid succession, apparently all different, but, at the root, forming a pattern of what Evelyn does wrong in every world.

An eyeblink might hide an important plot point or another from the unalert viewer. Things move quickly.

Amusingly, one of the parallel versions of Evelyn is Michelle Yeoh, glamorous action film star.

Unamusing to me, while some might find it amusing, was the parallel version where Evelyn has hotdog-fingers, because fingerbones never developed in that universe. This is one where she is in a lesbian love-affair with, of all people, the IRS auditor played by Jamie Lee Curtis. I found the whole sequence unwatchable. There may have been images of cannibalism hidden in the collage: I am not sufficiently ironclad in my stomach to go back and look.

I suppose it is a success when the filmmaker is trying to be disgusting and succeeds.

Nonetheless, the plot point is still used cleverly, since the Evelyn from the no-fingerbones world can play the piano with her feet, local Evelyn can borrow her foot-dexterity to escape a hold when her hands are pinned.

Now, the third act changes the tone, scope and pace of the plot so dramatically, that it suddenly becomes deeper and more empathetic, becoming a meditation on nihilism, the meaninglessness of everything, and the loving kindness which is offered as the answer to nihilism: for in an infinite universe, one were all decisions mean nothing, one can still decide to select the better rather than the worse, the kind over the cruel, the hopeful over the hopeless.

More than once, characters are driven to the brink, and, more than once, are drawn back. The apocalypse, on the one hand, turns out to be an Everything Bagel. On the other hand, this black ring is also the Wheel of Suffering and the great Zero of Nothingness, as well as the temptation to commit suicide.

We have seen this dark circle before. It has several meanings in the film.

Over against this, the film uses some subtle and absurd symbolism, such as the googly-eye stuck to the forehead, an ancient Oriental symbol of enlightenment.

In one very remote timeline indeed, one where no life arose, two rocks have a heartfelt conversation concerning their inner turmoil.

Each character is given a depth that the comedic first act and the tragic second act does not revealed until the end, including the difficult relationships between grandfather, daughter, husband and granddaughter.

I cannot say more without spoiling several clever surprises and plot twists; but this movie is not what you thought it was one or two acts ago.

Without giving away the ending, let me say that if it had been tragic or nihilist or ending on a note of dark comedy, that would have been a cheat. If all the difficulties of a difficult life had been cleared up, in this timeline or any other, too neatly or with a pat answer, that would have been a cheat. The ending was satisfactory, the proper sort of ending for a melodrama.

One might even wonder if it is no more than a hallucination or daydream of the main character suffering a mental breakdown, rather than the universe suffering a mental breakdown. But in every possible universe, there must be one where all these things actually happened.

This film has an almost unbelievably tight plot, told in multiple parallel quick-takes so rapidly that one’s head spins; and yet the film makers make no mistakes, forget no details. From a technical point of view, it is brilliant.

Seeing characters who, despite facing a fantastical threat from a science fiction world, are real, solid, and human is a welcome relief and sharp contrast with the bland, blank, nondescript cardboard characters political correctness produces. These are  characters drawn with such loving detail that they become real, and more is learned of each as the plot comes to a climax.

Despite its fantastical setting, the background is a laundromat, a struggling family, and an IRS building. The fantasy is rooted in the real world in a fashion only the most daring of fantasists can execute.

The symbolism is subtle and scattered throughout, sometimes grotesque, sometimes absurd, but never escaping the artistic control of the filmmakers. Some of this is genius; some is mad genius; some is madness; and I am sorry to say, all this rich and multilayered imagery is marred by several grotesque or horrific images I cannot forgive.

Aside from plot, character, setting, and symbolism, a science fiction story differs from every other form of story in that it proposes a world whose rules are different from this world.

The task of the science fiction storyteller is to portray those rules as quickly and seamlessly as possible, and thereafter to use them cleverly and not to break nor ignore them. This film gets top marks for that: it captures both the bewilderment of an ordinary women being through into a wild wonderland, but never once breaks its own rules that it establishes.

The theme is worth pondering. In every universe, there is a sense of failure, because each day we live, there are things we did not do which could have been done better, and decisions we regret; and there must be a sense of hope, because each day there is some blessing we can grant to another, small or large.

While this thought is deep, to my mind, it does not go deep enough: because, from a natural point of view, in a godless and meaningless universe, the idea that men can find meaning or deduce it from nature just by an act of will is false and shallow. Natural cannot answer the challenge of nihilism. Only the supernatural can answer, because only from a broader context from nature, looking at the foundations before nature begins, and at the end-goals beyond natural goals, can the meaning of nature be seen. But any man not sharing this conviction of mine will find the theme of the film perfectly satisfying.

What the film is not, is boring.  You will either be able to follow the brilliant juggling act of multiple parallel plotlines happening simultaneously, or you will be confused. You will either be greatly attracted or greatly repelled. You will either think the film’s message is wise or shallow.

Or, like me, you will have all these opposite reactions all at once.

The film is itself what the film is about. The film is actually about everything, all the deep questions of life, or, rather, about nothing. The film seemed to go everywhere, but, like the ending of Wizard of Oz the whole of it was actually was about mending what was wrong in life here and now. So the film itself is everything, goes everywhere, and produces opposite reactions, all at once.

Rereading this review, I see that I failed to mention the young fry-cook with a pet racoon that grants him miraculous cooking skills by hiding under his toque and pulling his hair. Like in that famous movie, Raccoonatouille.

I simply do not know what to think of this film. Which, itself, is kind of an accomplishment.