Have you ever left a theater after seeing a movie and immediately knew what you just saw was special? Not good, great, or even excellent. I mean unambiguously special. The type of movie that challenges your expectations of how a film could impact you. It is the kind of sensation that I can only recall experiencing on 2 other occasions prior to seeing “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, and now, the trifecta is completed. And to think, this is a movie about a woman struggling to file her taxes.
This might be one of the strangest films to write a synopsis for, which speaks to how adequately its title describes the movie. A Chinese American immigrant, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), and her meek husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) run a small laundromat and need to file their taxes. Evelyn is struggling to enjoy her life as she has been drowning in her own regrets for some time, causing her to be at best apathetic towards, and at worse, resent the people and the life she finds herself living. She looks down upon Waymond for lacking the conviction to want more from his life, and for believing he was not the man she thought he would be when they decided to leave their homes in China and start a new life for themselves together in America. Their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is the biggest victim of her mother’s apathy. She wants her mother to accept her for everything she is (she has a tattoo and is in an openly lesbian relationship with her girlfriend Becky), even if it does not align with the expectations her mother had, but Evelyn has made little to no effort in hiding her contempt for her daughter’s individuality. Finally, Evelyn is caring for her father, Gong Gong (James Hong), who is now a fragile old man, but outright disowned Evelyn when she decided to start a life in America with Waymond.
That sounds fairly grounded, right? Well, the story hasn’t even begun yet. Evelyn and Waymond need to file their taxes so they head to their local IRS building where they meet Deirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis). But, on the way to her office, something strange happens. Waymond weirdly changes his character and tells Evelyn he needs her help. He claims he is not of this universe and not the Waymond she married. He gives her a set of odd instructions and begs her to help fight off a great evil. Naturally, Evelyn thinks Waymond is just being stupid, but being disinterested in doing her taxes, she plays along. From this point on, Evelyn is thrown into a multiverse of all of her possible realities, as she helps different versions of her family and friends overcome a cataclysmic force. If I went into any more detail on the plot, this review would take weeks to complete. The complexities of the story are something to marvel at and my synopsis would fail to do it justice.
There are so many elements of this film that are praiseworthy but what connected with me most were the themes and messages. The concept of the multiverse allows us to explore ideas that are otherwise impossible if we were to abide by more grounded terms. As Evelyn reaches into other realities, she sees what her life could have been if she were to have taken different paths in life. At first, this reinforces her overwhelming disappointment with her current reality. She sees this as proof that those around her have held her back and tries to escape to these alternate universes to live out her more successful paths. Who among us has not fantasized about reliving past decisions with the knowledge we have now and making changes? It feels so natural to process regret this way. But the film does an excellent job to explore this concept without belittling or simplifying her true life or any of her perceived better alternatives.
We could have been spoon-fed a “careful what you wish for” lesson, but we were given something with far more tact. Evelyn is forced to process that her choices were her own, that she is responsible for the life she lives currently, and that she has neglected her current life in the defense of the pursuit of hypotheticals. Her selfish outlook on her own life has led her to a point where she has torpedoed her marriage to Waymond and drove her daughter away, all while refusing to reconcile her past with her father. She has to see for herself that she hasn’t failed in her life because of the choices she made in her past, rather she is currently still failing because she is neglecting what is still in front of her. It takes Evelyn experiencing multiple realities simultaneously to learn how to care for the only reality that matters: the one she is currently living.
Every bit of character growth from Evelyn is well earned. She is given her moments to interact with all 4 of the major players in her life (Deirdra is the unexpected 4th) which allows all of their philosophical outlooks to shine through. Waymond is given so much depth to a character that Evelyn outright has dismissed. He is happy and successful in the same life that Evelyn is a failure because he rejects apathy. Evelyn thought of him as weak because he wasn’t a serious man, but he shows his strength because he is able to rise above the attitudes that have caused Evelyn to fall.
Joy challenges Evelyn the most in the film, and if not for her, Evelyn might struggle to see any lessons at all. Without revealing too many details, for the vast majority of the film, Joy is presented as a threat to Evelyn (a not-so-subtle metaphor). Evelyn believes herself to be on a quest to overcome the obstacles that Joy has presented to her many lives. But with every short-sighted attempt to best Joy, it becomes increasingly clearer that Evelyn is not going to “win” with fancy Kung-fu. Joy’s character represents so much to the story. She is a rejection of tradition, a reflection of Evelyn’s apathy, a vessel for the future, and most importantly, a daughter that really needs her mother.
I will admit that this film brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions. Despite all the fantasy and science fiction, this film is so deeply human and emotional. I have no basis in my own life to truly relate to being an immigrant who took such a leap of faith and feels as though she would have been better off if she didn’t. I will never know what it is like to be a mother who has to learn to embrace her own daughter or to be a daughter who has been failed by her mother. But that is what this film is spectacular at. These characters are so real that empathizing with them is one of the most natural experiences I have ever had watching a film. And, to that, the actors deserve more credit than they are bound to receive because they were all as close to perfect in their roles as you could hope for.
It is easy to feel mired in your own circumstances. This film challenges you to be better than that. Cynicism, nihilism, and apathy are easy traps to fall into and it requires work to crawl back out of the pits after you fall. Nothing is truly meaningless if it means something to you, and just because you could have made different choices does not mean that the choices you did make were wrong. The lives we are living are always in front of us and the lives we lived can never be changed because they are behind us. It is up to us to decide which is more important.
This film is exotic and breaks the mold. It tells multiple versions of the same story simultaneously and is able to balance them all. Honestly, what I found most unexpected was just how funny it is. It knows the concepts it embraces are very outlandish and it uses that to create some very comedic moments that never lessen the emotional impact of its Pathos. I think it is almost unfair that there is so much to dissect in this movie that I am only able to talk about a mere fraction of the whole.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” is the antithesis of much of the trends of modern filmmaking. It is not mindless entertainment reliant on the same hackneyed concepts that have been shoved in our faces systematically for years on end. It is a challenging watch that treats its audience with enough respect to allow them to truly experience the totality of what the story is trying to convey. It does not pull any punches but in return, it expects you as its audience to put in the effort to follow along with its wild story.
I want to say so much more about this movie but at that point, I would just be rambling. There are good films. There are great films. There are excellent films. And then there are special films. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is a special film.
I give “Everything Everywhere All At once” a resounding “A”.
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong
Directed By: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Runtime: 2 Hours and 19 Minutes