By Phedias Christodoulides
Everything Everywhere All at Once is the worst critically-acclaimed film I have ever watched. Yes, it is that bad. It combines the frantic but dumb entertainment of superhero films with the naïve sentimentalism of middle-brow cinema, combining the worst of both worlds. The fact that most American critics loved it and it won the Oscar for Best Picture is an indictment of the state of film criticism today. What separates art from dumb entertainment or naïve sentimentalism seems to have been forgotten.
The film’s star is Evelyn, a poor, Chinese-born, well-meaning laundromat owner whose business is facing an intimidating IRS audit. Her marriage with Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is struggling, and her relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her father (James Hong) are both strained. In particular, Evelyn cannot accept her daughter’s lesbianism, while her father could not accept her marriage to Waymond. Waymond on his part is comically affable but also comically ineffective, a self-effacing person who is more like an assistant to Evelyn rather than a romantic partner and husband. Given her predicament, Evelyn is naturally prone to daydreaming about the different directions her life could have taken. When she starts daydreaming during an IRS appointment with tough auditor Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), all hell breaks loose as Evelyn is informed by a version of Waymond from another universe that she is tasked with saving the whole of existence from destruction.
From this point on, the film turns into what looks like a parody of superhero films. We are served a never-ending series of ridiculously over-the-top martial arts-inspired battle scenes between characters, accompanied by incessant hopping between the different lives of Evelyn in different universes. The characters acquire the talents and powers of their superior alternate selves via performing actions they would never do in everyday life, usually disgusting ones such as licking and swallowing another person’s boogers. To quote a review from the Associated Press, “it’s possible that the distance has never before been so great between a movie’s mundane storyline — in this case, a Chinese immigrant laundromat owner trying to file her taxes — and what extreme shape it takes.” It appears as if the rationale of the directors in making the film was to construct the most incongruous plot they could imagine.
Unfortunately though, the film is no parody, despite certain parodic references. It turns out out that the whole multiverse plot is simply a means for Evelyn to better understand herself and her family so as to accept both them and her own life. The hectic action sequences are intertwined with personal exchanges and revelations by Yeoh and her family, with every character from her mundane reality resurfacing as an opponent or ally in the multiverse, from her family members to Deirdre and a rude laundromat customer. The different universes we see on screen are only some of the many alternate life paths that Evelyn’s life could have taken. We are told that unlike Neo, Evelyn isn’t the One, but rather, she is the Zero. Out of an infinite number of possible Evelyns, she is the one whose life is completely defined by unrealized potential and missed opportunities. Evelyn is the ultimate failure in life. Now, she is tasked with using the abilities of her alternate selves to save the world by fixing her life. She is tasked with learning to appreciate her husband and especially with learning to accept her daughter. In fact, her nemesis is none other than her daughter’s multiverse alter ego, who has turned nihilist after experiencing all that the multiverse can offer and seeing no point in it. In essence, the Daniels attempt to prosecute and resolve a minor family drama via the plot trappings of an over-the-top superhero film. In so doing, they suggest that the lack of communication and the interpersonal alienation of contemporary life which so afflicts Evelyn and her daughter is an existential threat to humanity that we must face and overcome.
Here I have to ask: What the hell where they thinking? Why would anyone think that combining a sentimental family drama with a comically exaggerated superhero film is a good idea? Because it is not. First of all, the multiverse concept actually undermine the film’s story and ostensible stakes. If everything possible is happening in one universe or other of the infinite multiverse, then all the possible outcomes of our story will also happen, erasing the stakes concerning Evelyn’s ostensibly difficult decisions. In other words, the mechanics of the multiverse make no narrative sense. Moreover, the summary I gave above is clearer than the actual film, as the latter’s hectic action sequences distract us from following and focusing upon the story. The exaggerated action ends up smothering the film’s underlying family drama. The different universes we glimpse are meant to represent Evelyn’s daydreams and longings for a different life, but the hectic direction prevents us from getting absorbed and fascinated by any one of them. We do not stay long in any of these worlds, and none of them is developed sufficiently to appear real and attractive. They are also played mostly for laughs and thus we have trouble reflecting upon them seriously. The same holds for the action sequences. We cannot take the nihilist existential challenge of Evelyn’s daughter seriously.
The film is filled with superficially cool and smart touches that add nothing to it. The film’s directing duo The Daniels love pop culture references, and they employ the multiverse plot for laughs in parodying famous films such as The Matrix, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ratatouille and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. One of the universes even presents us with an Evelyn leading a life very similar to real-life Michelle Yeoh’s, another metatextual reference. These references make us feel smart when we catch them – we feel smart for noticing something beyond the surface of the film’s narrative – but serve no other purpose. They do not deepen the film with the associations they elicit: like most else in the film, they are incongruous and their incongruity is played for easy laughs. As the New Yorker’s Richard Brody aptly put it, there is an “arbitrary and sophomoric whimsy that runs through the film and governs its plot and tone”. Case in point: the ridiculous hot-dog universe, where evolution took a strange direction and we ended up with hot-dogs for fingers. In this universe, Evelyn is romantically involved with Deirdre, and the only function of their scenes together is to heighten the ridiculousness of the film. In another universe, life never manifested and Evelyn and her daughter are rocks in a rocky canyon. They communicate their thoughts to us via onscreen text, another pointless instance of absurdism. If one is curious to see how absurdism can be used meaningfully for cinematic purposes, check any French Bunuel film.
What’s worse, the film is not even funny after the novelty factor runs out. Initially the overall ridiculousness is funny, but by the time we come to the so-called “everything bagel” which is an arbitrary symbol of decadent nihilism, the stupidity is too much to bear. And let us not mention the many instances of juvenile scatological humour. The worst offender is probably the kung-fu fight featuring characters with objects inside their rectums. The objects in question are IRS Employee of the Month Awards that are shaped like sex toys, for no other reason other than that the Daniels found it funny. Cruder than the crudest Woody Allen joke, but lacking the bite and insight of the latter.
Many people have praised Yeoh’s and Quan’s acting, but we have no time to really notice it, so I won’t. The Daniels’ direction is hysterical, with rapid editing and lots of arbitrary camera movement that do not allow any scene to breathe. The film is pretty much directed as a feature-length trailer. If the goal was to make us experience sensory overload, they succeed, but this is not a compliment. Art is supposed to make us critically reflect about the world, not to overstimulate us into a daze. Yeoh’s character is given no time with her emotions: all the time she is under intense pressure to act and has no time to relax or think. Overall, little time is spent in developing the characters and their relationships. For example, a lot of the dialogue between Waymond and Evelyn is just crude exposition, and at other times we are served psychobabble. We proceed from plot point to plot point and from cheeky reference to cheeky reference, but the film’s characters and stories never seem real. The Daniels do not employ much detail in visualising how it is to be a poor laundromat owner or a Chinese movie star. The characters of Everything Everywhere All at Once are essentially caricatures with a few exaggerated traits.
The film is less of a developed story and more like a series of incongruous memes. This is probably one of the main reasons the film was popular with Millennial and Zoomer audiences: young people today love memes, probably because memes make them feel smart for getting the joke or the pithy aphorism of the meme. I, on the other hand, think that memes oversimplify the world of human experience into pseudo-clever or pseudo-profound hot takes, and are a poor substitute for learning through reading books or through the arts. They are definitely a poor substitute for narrative cinema. Art is supposed to be concrete and specific, while memes work on the level of generalities.
What about the film’s underlying message? It is simple enough: make peace with and adapt to chaotic, alienating modernity. More specifically, near the end of the film and in the midst of yet another frantic action sequence, Waymond begs Evelyn to stop the violence and begins spouting forth banalities about the virtues of kindness, patience and acceptance of others. These virtues are presented as the way to fix Evelyn’s life and save the multiverse. By extension, they are presented to the audience as the antidote to the alienation and oppression of contemporary capitalist society. The Daniels evidently think that young people are increasingly anxious, confused and nihilistic (true enough), and their response is the response of all self-help charlatans like Tony Robbins: be positive and learn to notice the good and beautiful aspects of life that exist around us. I suppose this message is another one of the reasons why young people loved the film: it resonates with their overwhelming and confusing lives and provides a simple, reassuring solution to it.
The solution is false, however. The problems of the modern world are structural and their roots intractable for the average person: they cannot be solved by mere interpersonal kindness and positivity. In the film, everything appears to turn out well: Evelyn learns to appreciate Waymond and to accept her daughter’s choices, while she also gets to keep her business afloat. But is this enough for a good life? For some lucky people perhaps yes, but we will not overcome poverty, unemployment, exploitation, oppression, nationalism, authoritarianism or war in such fashion. In fact, one of the reasons people are becoming increasingly cynical and nihilistic about the world is precisely the repeated failure of such simple solutions to improve their lives. We all have a therapist affirming us and trying to get us to accept ourselves and the present, but we remain troubled and unhappy. Everything Everywhere All at Once cannot account for the roots of our existential malaise, nor does it offer any viable way out of it. A further issue I have with the film’s resolution is that it upholds family values as a shelter from our hyperactive, confusing present. This is a conservative response that will not do the trick, as family values themselves are in deep crisis in modernity. And there is also something narcissistic in making the whole multiverse focus around a Zoomer’s identity issues.
In any case, the film’s life lessons are unearned because the story and the characters are shallow and undeveloped, and because it is hard to take seriously the film’s sentiments given its gross amount of infantile and scatological humor. The Daniels are style-over-substance directors who strive for profundity but only achieve dumb sentimentalism. They seem to want to prove that life is worth living, but only prove that film criticism is dead. The film exists in the intellectually and emotionally impoverished world of superheroes and special effects. I suppose many people liked it because of its supposed originality – people are tired of the endless stream of interchangeable superhero films and any variation of the formula is appreciated –, but when your innovation only amounts to combining the worst elements of Marvel movies and middle-brow cinema, it is not something to be proud of. If this is the future of independent cinema, we should be worried. If we cannot any longer separate depth from superficiality, art from entertainment and profundity from sentimentalist, we should be worried. I’m not optimistic.