How can we get back?
The nihilistic notion that life is meaningless and “nothing matters” doesn’t necessarily need to put you into a depressive malaise. It could also provide you the room to take chances and live without regret. That’s not to say that a cautious life is destined for sorrow, though. The path of least resistance doesn’t always mean that it’s a path to obsolescence. Look at Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) as an example. They chose a textbook “boring” life together, one that demands too much work and responsibility and never enough “fun” insofar as exotic adventures. Their life remains exciting regardless—or, at least, it did. Everything they aspired towards was inherently fun because they loved being together. But that all changed somewhere along the way.
Writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert know that such a reality is neither unique nor permanent. Waymond’s genial demeanor was always construed as weakness by Evelyn’s father (James Hong‘s Gong Gong), but it didn’t guarantee failure. Evelyn’s enthusiasm for and uncertainty about multiple hobbies didn’t guarantee resentment. Would they be completely different people had they parted ways in youth? Sure. Would they have been better off? Maybe. These things are relative. Independent success isn’t a one-for-one equivalent to a daughter (Stephanie Hsu‘s Joy) that would cease to exist. Just because hindsight allows for infinite possible fantasies to desire doesn’t negate the fact that the life they’re living right now didn’t start as one too. It was a dream come true. Its truth simply became another reality to escape.
And that’s where we meet them at the start of Everything Everywhere All at Once—not at the beginning of the end, but the end itself. Whether Waymond still believes in the dream doesn’t mean the dream hasn’t already died. He hopes their upcoming community Chinese New Year’s party can be a fresh start complete with a jolt to the system via divorce papers meant to shake Evelyn loose from the daily grind that’s all but consumed her soul the past few years (or decades). That which she loved about him in the past, however, has become that which she abhors. With every hiccup, she hears her father’s voice and places the blame at Waymond’s feet. With every misstep in her relationship with Joy, she becomes her father.
It’s all come to a head today. Party planning. Generational damage control (Joy wants to tell her grandfather that Tallie Medel‘s Becky isn’t her friend, but her partner). Strained romance. Business operations. And an IRS audit (courtesy of Jamie Lee Curtis) threatening to take everything away. It’s enough to ignite a complete psychotic break and Evelyn surely wonders if that’s exactly what’s happening when her unassuming husband suddenly transforms into a put-together secret agent full of confidence and swagger. He sticks Bluetooth earbuds in her ears, presses a button on his cellphone, and tells her she’s humanity last hope to save the multiverse from a world-destroying evil known as Jobu Tupaki. All she must do is open her mind and hijack her alternate selves’ disparate abilities.
Being that the men at the helm are those responsible for the so-called “farting corpse film,” know that delving into this outrageously complex science fiction conceit won’t be without its fair share of absurdity. They take a Dadaist approach to the ordeal by making it so the only way to “verse jump” is by doing the most unlikely act one could do at any given time. Chew a ChapStick. Staple a note to your forehead. Declare your love for your enemy. The wilder the act, the more susceptible to bridging the gap between worlds. Suddenly the obedient Evelyn trapped in a box dictated by cultural tradition and capitalistic oppression is ready to fight with hibachi flourish, kung fu precision, and/or pinky strength. Hot dog hands aren’t as effective.
The Daniels go one step further, however, by solidifying the bond while in-use. Unlike The Matrix characters downloading talent or comic books placing multiple physical versions of the same person on-screen together, Evelyn (and everyone else considering this multiverse exists for all to wield) is linking with herself in a way that allows both versions to access each other simultaneously. So, while “our” Evelyn is using an “alt” Evelyn’s ability to kick ass in “our” world, the “alt” Evelyn is being affected by those actions in hers. If someone kicks one Evelyn, the other feels it. If one Evelyn is paying attention to one world’s conversation, the other is simply staring blankly on “autopilot” until focus is returned. The potential for narrative surprises and comedic gold is endless.
So is the potential to fail miserably, especially on a budget well below any of the aforementioned Hollywood properties. Like with Swiss Army Man, however, the Daniels show that ingenuity and heart go a long way towards closing the financial gap. Humor too considering this concept is a lot easier to absorb when it’s taken to its extremes—both aesthetically (with a Wong Kar Wai homage) and surreally (with an inexplicable nod to a beloved Pixar film with special guest Harry Shum Jr.). The filmmakers use jokes as their entry points to complicated ideas that a general moviegoing public might not care to delve into, visualizing their gimmick in a way that renders explanation somewhat moot. Propulsion and distraction comingle until everyone watching is swept aboard.
Then and only then do the Daniels unleash the heart at its center. The themes they touch upon here are perhaps even darker than their previous collaboration (and that was about a suicidal man teaching a corpse how to live). Why? Because within those extremes is the reality that nihilism rarely creates a drive for more. The depressive malaise that often comes with believing life is meaningless becomes a black hole (or everything bagel in this case) ready to inhale anyone who’s no longer willing to fight. What’s the point? Why pretend that being good achieves anything if those who are only end up sad? Evelyn is stretched too thin to enjoy life. Joy is prevented from fully being herself with those she loves. And Waymond’s smile disappeared.
Why not quit? Why not let yourself die upon seeing a different version that’s actually happy? For Evelyn to meet all these other selves living what look to be lives that are at least interesting if not unequivocally wonderful starts to make her think that she did it all wrong, every step of the way. Except she only sees glimpses. If life is truly meaningless, then what she’s witnessed is nothing but a mirage that seems great from an imperfect perspective. Truth is more demanding. It needs death, enlightenment, horror, love, fear, and much more to clearly be revealed. And Evelyn will utilize every emotion, state of being, and implausibility to open her eyes to that which she had gone blind. Strength comes in many forms.
So too does pain. Everything Everywhere All at Once may find itself flirting with the potential for a happy ending, but it aspires and succeeds in ensuring the journey is paved in authentic and universal suffering. Yeoh, Quan, and Hsu are operating on a transcendent level of humanity where every flaw becomes a gift and vice versa. The places they are going cannot be found with the flip of a switch because paradise is an illusion no matter what world they live on. Love is hard work no matter how pure and unbreakable the bond was at the start. If the Wang family does find their fairy tale conclusion, it will inevitably come with scars. They’re what remind us why we fight. To survive, but also to heal.
 (L-R) Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan Photo Credit: Allyson Riggs
 Jamie Lee Curtis Photo Credit: Allyson Riggs
 (L-R) Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, James Hong Photo credit: Allyson Riggs