‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ reminds us that we are limitless

Image: A24.

Reviewer’s Note: Once again, this review is late because the film never opened in theaters and most streaming services are unavailable in the country where I live. However, Everything Everywhere All at Once is such a special film that I had to write about it. Also, who cares if the movie is a couple months old. Time is a fabrication and nothing matters.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is the second feature film written and directed by the duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as “Daniels,” and while those familiar with their previous work of Swiss Army Man and music videos including DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” and Foster the People’s “Don’t Stop” will spot similarities in the ramshackle, handmade aesthetic and absurdist humor, these are by no means proper preparation for the overabundance of fever-dream imagery, wicked comedy, brutal action, swirling emotions, and butt jokes crammed so dense that quick-cut montages reveal more possibilities than some entire films. And that’s just in the first of three parts with the following amplifying each element to ever more ridiculous, wondrous heights to the point that its two hours and twenty minutes span lifetimes. There is so much happening on-screen simultaneously that even multiple viewings, at times moving frame-by-frame, still don’t reveal every little detail or quirk snuck into the background of the most minor setups. Then, right when it feels like the film can’t get fit any more into the clay pot of its own of absurdity without shattering into a million pieces, it does exactly that, and the resultant explosion is a glorious mess forming itself into an even greater clay pot containing itself, its previous self, and every other clay pot that is, has, and ever will be.

A circle hasn’t been this meaningful since “The Hudsucker Proxy.” (Image: A24)

Everything Everywhere All at Once is the type of film where something as simple as a circle scribbled on a piece of paper becomes a vortex of multiple new meanings and importance pulling the viewer ever closer to its own reality while also extending its reach ever farther from what we accept as reality. One-off gags about misnaming a popular Pixar film, having hot dogs instead of fingers, or a sign reading “Hail Bagel” develop into their own absurd, and often grotesque, side stories complete with character arcs and relationships both independent from and informative of the central plot. In the same way that Kazimir Malevich’s painting of a black quadrilateral can be said to portray the entire span of space and time, Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s infinite branching timelines encompass all possibilities into one of the most basic shapes of the natural order. Perhaps the greatest sign of the film’s success is that every round shape, from the window of a laundry machine to the ring of a statue, becomes a sign of looming dread. After years of seeing circular designs as a symbol for never-ending repetition, of Ouroboros feeding upon itself, Everything Everywhere All at Once reconditions our mind to look into the negative space around and within the circle, the same emptiness which we all at times feel when we are, ironically, too full of emotions and frustrations to ever escape from ourselves. The circle becomes a symbol not just of the film’s villain but also of the film itself. It is order and chaos, intelligence and stupidity, ridiculous and real, disgusting and beautiful, it is more of everything than can be fit on a bagel.

For some reason the hot dog fingers just really disturb me. (Image: A24)

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a supremely silly movie. From the central premise to the several of hyper-stylized fight scenes, so much in the film feels just too stupid to watch. Yet, just as we as humans so accept invisible numbers as value that we spend our entire lives chasing scraps of paper thinking they’ll make us happy rather than doing any of the infinite things that could actually makes us happy, Everything Everywhere All at Once reminds us that life itself is silly. The problems we obsess over, dire as they may seem for us, are miniscule, temporary, ultimately meaningless distractions. Our obligations, be they financial, professional, or social, are limitations we crush ourselves beneath. They are excuses we make for never taking the risks we want to take, saying the words we want to say, being the people we want to be. Everything Everywhere All at Once wants us to know that we can always be more. That one change, however minor, can have far-reaching consequences. Humans are stupid little creatures so often wrapped up in ourselves that we can’t even communicate to those we’re supposed to be closest with. We are so thoroughly invested in silly things that by the time the film cuts between a pair of talking piñatas, a rock with googly eyes trying to hug another rock, and a woman with expressionist make-up being held back by her mother with another googly eye on her forehead being held back by her father wearing a copy machine as a robot arm being held back by his son-in-law wearing a fanny pack loaded with aquarium rocks, we forget just how silly it all is and invest in the importance of a series of images flickering on a screen in front of us because we are all small, stupid pieces of s-

Hail Bagel! (Image: A24)

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a story about generational trauma and the pressure we feel in living up to the expectations placed upon us. One of the cruelest statements in the film comes in a single, darkly comedic line, spoken to Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) father at the moment of her birth: “I’m sorry, it’s a girl.” This one sentence kicks off the cycle of disappointment assuring that Evelyn, no matter what life she lives, will never be able to please her father. Even her successes are temporary reprieves from ultimate failure, a sentiment which she then passes to her husband and their daughter. As a family of Chinese immigrants, the Wangs themselves deal with the dichotomy of expectation and disappointment in their lives as Americans, believing in a dream they could never achieve. While the narrative sets up Jobu Tupaki as threatening the world, in seeing the family we learn that the danger started generations before, its consequences growing ever deeper through each subsequent era. For all its insanity and creativity, the real core of Everything Everywhere All at Once is in how it handles the relationships between its characters, the way Evelyn only ever learned from her father to express herself through criticism, and the resulting depression in her “mess” of a daughter. Just as Evelyn knows that she would always fail at everything, Joy knows that she too, in the eyes of her mother, would always fail. It’s in these moments, far moreso than in any action sequence, that the film finds its greatest importance. Most of us will never how it feels to instantly learn kung-fu in order to combat a multiversal threat. But all of us know how to it feels to think that we are failures, and the fear, the emptiness, the meaninglessness that comes with that feeling. Why even try? Nothing matters.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” does not work without Michelle Yeoh. (Image: A24)

Everything Everywhere All at Once is in some ways the culmination of Michelle Yeoh’s career. Most known to American audiences as an action star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a truly silly movie), the actress turns in a performance that hits every note possible. As Evelyn, Yeoh gets to play the matriarch struggling to keep her family together, the immigrant retrained by the culture in which she was born and the society in which she lives, the butt-kicking action hero she’s always been, the comedic relief, and even the movie star she is in real life. As her husband Waymond, Ke Huy Quan matches Yeoh in every way, although to a less extent, fluctuating from meek and well natured to suave and yet still well natured in the Wong Kar Wai-inspired movie star scenes. While none of the film’s swirling insanity works without Yeoh’s solid foundation, the film wouldn’t be so insane if not for Stephanie Hsu turning in a performance that is painfully somber, delightfully unhinged, and so well defined that a single word or look of the eye signals the difference between her dueling roles. She is terrifying and yet entirely sympathetic and the tension between the two actresses throughout make their scenes together, in whatever role, more brutal than any amount of paper cuts or dildo beatings. Meanwhile, Jamie Lee Curtis is astonishing in a completely unself-conscious supporting part that takes the deglamorizing tread to a whole new level, especially when it comes to hotdog hands. The floppy fingers should not be impactful, yet with Yeoh and Curtis’s full investment, a grotesque visual gag becomes an effecting film-within-a-film. Still gross though.

Everything on screen has a reason, and there is an on-screen reason for everything. (Image: A24)

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a study in how to do everything a film is not supposed to do. Divided into parts, the film swings wildly between over-exposition and over-the-top ridiculousness. The film can’t even decide on a narrative tone, moving through silly, absurd and dark comedy, brutal and stylized action, fantasy adventure, family melodrama, animation, abstraction, and even socio-political allegory. It’s so exhausting that its two hours feel like four. Yet it’s in miraculously tying all of these disparate elements together that the film finds its genius. Upon completion, what feels like pointless forays into comedic opulence emerge as vital pieces of thematic cohesion. Overstuffed as it is, there is nothing, from Hsu’s flashy costumes to the office equipment weapons, that doesn’t feel meticulously chosen to provoke a specific reaction. At a time when so much of filmmaking feels sanitized and predictable, Everything Everywhere All at Once shows just how far human creativity can go when unshackled by studio or artistic expectation. It is a celebration of the limitless bounds of life, the mind, and the infinite infinities contained therein. Where fourth wall breaking speeches about kindness would otherwise feel out of place, Everything Everywhere All at Once not only makes it a believable part of the narrative, it uses that speech as the basis of an entire fight sequence, complete with gags of both the visual and sex toy variety. The film’s visual, thematic, and tonal density make watching it feel like an achievement, one that reminds us of everything we are capable of when we allow ourselves to embrace the better version of who we think we are. Depression, pain, disappointment, mundanity, frustration over the things we can’t do, the places we can’t go, the people we can’t be, and the infinite cycle of laundry and taxes isn’t all there is to life.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is…

Rating: 5 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.