Readers Write In #489: Celebrating Chaos in ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’

Posted on September 16, 2022

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By ​Karthik Amarnath

I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun watching a movie as I did with the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at once. I was reminded of a great Robert Altman quote that says, “Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.” The Daniels’ have taken this literally, living as many lifetimes as possible in the span of a single film, and they live it up with a madcap style. Everything, Everywhere is literally about so many things, and only one of them is the multiverse that’s facing an existential threat, from something called Jobu Tupaki. You dont need to go looking for what it means. As a character puts it, “Thats just some made-up sounds.”  From made-up sounds and googly eyes to talking piñatas and a giant metaphorical bagel, the Daniels’ throw the kitchen sink, shelves, and the whole damn pantry.

The opening stretch of the film is delightful, where Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh in the role of a lifetime, but more on that later), and her husband Waymond Wang (a goofy Ke Huy Quan) are managing multigenerational needs at home, an impending birthday party, customers at their laundromat business, marital strife and tax troubles. The filmmaking is so kinetic here that it makes you feel like Evelyn is handling everything, everywhere all at once. Their laundromat is really a metaphor. Rows of identical washing machines with clothes cycling inside all of them, are like the many universes with mundane repetitive lives. One of these laundry cycles is disrupted by something unusual in a machine, and it signals the start of the wild ride that follows. 

Like the washing machine, the Wangs’ mundane everyday life is disrupted by a tax audit. Taxes are another metaphor, about the errors that come back to bite you. The tax agent is played by a fantastic Jamie Lee Curtis, who shows up as a literal devil in the details, sometimes plays Chopin with her foot, sometimes fights like a ninja, and sometimes has hot dogs for fingers. Even with all that, she is still only the fourth or maybe fifth craziest character in this film. There’s also James Hong who at times shows up with a wickedly whimsical name Alpha Gong Gong, and at times looks like the wickedly whimsical Dr. Strangelove. But the real scene stealer is Stephanie Hsu, who plays Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter Joy Wang, and has a fabulous five minute stretch where, I swear, if she had swallowed the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, and burped out butterflies, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. 

I’m not understating when I say Everything, Everywhere is overloaded with crazy. But what’s crazier is just how quickly you get tuned to the film’s wacky rhythms. In a way, I was reminded of when I first watched BBC’s Sherlock, and felt like TV shows had evolved all of a sudden. In the earlier era, we’d patiently sit through as David Suchet’s Poirot made time for a gentle pot of tea before starting his long narration. In contrast, Sherlock seemed made for the smartphone era, for an audience who consumed buckets of bite sized information, even while being entertained. In the show, we’d often see texts scroll rapidly on screen, facts fly like rapid fire rounds, scenes that just flashed by, and mysteries solved before you could say “my dear Watson.” Deduction in the Cumberbatch era wasn’t just elementary, it was momentary. 

Everything, Everywhere is made for a newer era, one where the fourth wall is fluid, where our social media is a bottomless pitcher of pint sized videos, served by dings and alerts. Where in an earlier era, a film may have been content to toss in movie references as Easter eggs, Everything, Everywhere gives us the whole omelet station where half a dozen narratives get flipped over and over. And it doesn’t feel abnormal that the world of this film is whisked into a world of many films, and characters dart madly across a multi-movie-verse with widely varying tone and texture. A Wuxia world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can lead into a live action reimagining of a Pixar classic, before taking a moody detour into a Wong Kar Wai masterpiece.

And it all works so well thanks to the immaculate world building, or rather, multiverse building by the Daniels’. Their neatest trick is to not try and manifest something thats never been imagined, but really infest it with all thats been imagined. They also dont build a Christopher Nolan-esque lego structure which needs a lengthy instruction manual. In fact, I’d say Everything, Everywhere has a rather simple “explanation” of its multiverse, which it tosses at the viewer with casual irreverence and some wicked humor. This liberates the film to a limitless cosmos where anything goes. And the film goes bonkers, pulling off conceits that range from paper cuts and butt plugs to puppeteer raccoons.

This film is a triumph of imagination cut loose. Plus, in its quest to explore everything everywhere, it also manages to cover some philosophical territory. My favorite bit was when it suddenly goes to a place thats nowhere, where characters do nothing. Its a gobsmacking moment, deeply existential, when all the zany turns to zen. The scene also has a phenomenal payoff later which makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Thats because even when the film gets existential, it never lets its philosophies get bigger than its characters.  In fact, everything in the film is a function of its characters, a function of their decisions, of their deliberate actions. Every plot point comes out of choice and not chance. The wacky worlds, the crazy conceits, the maniacal action sequences are all a grand celebration of chaos in unfettered humanness. As the best line of the film goes, “We are all just small and stupid!”

And small and stupid characters carry a multiverse of personalities, which we see in all the main characters, but especially in Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang, who is the real star of the film. Yeoh brings her entire gamut of acting skills and action skills to drive the film’s frantic and frivolous narrative shifts. She also perfectly captures that immigrant parent who no doubt helicoptered her child, but with the adult daughter growing distant, she struggles in her empty nest, and throws insults in search of intimacy. I also loved Quan’s portrayal of the bumbling and sensitive husband, who searches for intimacy in his own contradictory way. Everything, Everywhere doesn’t shy away from genuine sentiment, which comes out in the final stretch— a very long final stretch with a Jackie Chan meets Jadhoo ki Jhappi sequence that goes on and on. Like a raging rebellious teenager who decides to return home after a riotous rumspringa, the film shows its warm and fuzzy side. 

But even the warm and fuzzy is served with a side of wacky fun. Thats really the thing about Everything. It just never stops being fun. After all, when the gravest threat to the multiverse rhymes with Appu’s Thuppaaki, should we expect any less?