‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ superbly uncloaks multiverse, bagel nihilism

Photo of a still from Everything Everywhere All At Once

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

It’s difficult to conceive of a title that adheres to a film as well as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” does to its cinematic referent. Perhaps it’s the only title that maps onto a film so riddled with idiosyncrasies and particulars; the fact that it was able to grow legs (or hot dog fingers) and walk is nothing short of a miracle. Yet walk it does, or rather, it hurdles with a fevered zeal on a universe-hopping acid trip.

Directing duo known as Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan) got their start in music videos, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is made in the image of “Turn Down For What.” Just as Kwan himself in the video gyrates so aggressively that he crashes through floorboards into a downstairs apartment, catalyzing a digital-era bacchanal — in the film, Michelle Yeoh slams into a janitor’s closet, this time triggering a rupture in the anatomy of the entire universe.

When Daniels began writing the screenplay for the film in 2016, the metaverse was but a mere glimmer in the unfeeling, inhuman eye of Mark Zuckerberg. Fast-forward to 2022, where a manufactured metaversian reality isn’t any less nebulous, yet now occupies a marked amount of cultural real estate. In a milieu textured by Zoom, bored apes and billionaire-funded AI pet projects, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” for all of its A24 marketing-ready garnishes, paradoxically gets back to basics.

Yeoh takes a wiley turn as Evelyn, an obstinate yet big-hearted Chinese immigrant mother running a laundry service. She’s also in the midst of an IRS audit. And a visit from her estranged father. And being served with divorce papers. And feuding with her directionless millennial daughter. Stakes and tensions don’t exactly mount, as the Daniels situate them at an already astronomical height. From there, it’s just a short, un-belabored leap into the multiverse.

In the film’s first chapter, Evelyn, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and her father (James Hong), find themselves in an elevator on the way to be audited (Evelyn’s eccentric spending practices seem to have been written off as business expenses). The elevator dings, and in a flash, Waymond reveals himself to be from an alternate universe, informing Evelyn that she — the laundromat owner version of herself — is the only one who can prevent eminent universal destruction at the hands of bagel-nihilist-in-chief, Jobu Tupaki.

The premise of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” calls to mind a menu-offering at acclaimed Berkeley bagel joint, Boichik Bagels: the “pumperthingel.” Speaking the words out loud is absurd, embarrassing even, but when tasted — it simply works. The Daniels’ feature is tight, incurring barely any cream cheese seepage, but it owes a lot to the astonishing amount of heart it stuffs in lending structure to all its extraneous bits. By all accounts, the melange of Wong Kar-Wai homages, giant butt plugs and martial arts sequences shouldn’t cohere into a film capable of striking such a profound emotional chord, but it manages to find sure footing.

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” is “Rick and Morty” all grown up: Its nihilism is just as colorful, yet hues to a familial directive, instead of a masturbatory, contrarian one. The film demonstrates that it is endlessly capable of indulging a populist appetite for histrionics and cosmic bombast, all the while simultaneously illuminating sinewy family relationships.

There’s a great line that arrives as the film nears its final lap, during a vignette where Evelyn and her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) exist in a universe where they aren’t people but giant boulders at the edge of a cliff. Shortly after an explosive fight in the laundromat, Evelyn “verse-jumps,” ending up in the rock universe. “Oh good, you’re here too,” Joy remarks. Maybe it’s a line said with churlish irony rather than sentimentality, but nonetheless, this simplistic, off-the-cuff assertion feels like it presents the best way forward.

Emma Murphree covers film. Contact her at [email protected].