Cast, crew of ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ talk empathy, film’s unique visual language

Photo of a still from a Daniel Kwan movie

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This article contains brief spoilers for “Everything Everywhere All At Once”

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” is a film as overflowing as its title connotes. It’s a wily multiverse odyssey that packs a punch; yet, it also unfolds like a set of nesting dolls, where each layer inches closer to a shared spiritual core. There aren’t many movies that stick quite as well or retain both kineticism and affectation. The film bruises its audience with whiplash, only to kiss it better in the next scene. 

From the moment they wrapped their off-kilter yet remarkably sweet debut feature, “Swiss Army Man,” the Daniels directing duo, comprised of Daniel ​​Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, have set their sights higher, jumping right into writing the screenplay for “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”

Now armed with an enlarged budget, their ornaments swell bigger and glimmer brighter, but the Daniels’ intimate and small-scale ethos remains fixed. 

“I wanted to make a movie that taught us personally,” Kwan said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “ ‘How can we exist in this chaos?’ ” 

In many ways, the film is the lovechild of classic Criterion collection films —Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” and Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” both worm their way in — and enduring pop culture centerpieces, such as Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Allusions and self-reflexivity in film often come off as indulgent, or some kind of vapid artistic posturing; for the Daniels, however, it runs deeper. 

“It’s the language of how we see the world,” Scheinert said about the references. “The ones we keep are the ones that resonate and mean something else to us.” 

Much of what the Daniels sought to accomplish via “Everything Everywhere All At Once” can be thought of as constructing a new language, one that is malleable to the chaos of modern life. 

This chaos often begets a fissure, or a kind of breaking point. In the film, it is wrapped up in generational anxiety, channeled through Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who frequently clashes with her mother, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh). Their fraught relationship effectuates a polarity of experience and mutual misunderstanding. 

“The Daniels are dealing with the disappointment of this generation,” Yeoh elucidated. “Millennials, they are living a much faster, different kind of fast, to my generation. There is a disconnect there.” 

“(The chaos) is here, it’s not going anywhere,” Kwan professed, identifying the film’s guiding principle. “And if we don’t find a language or a mythic story that we can collectively tap into, we’re all gonna go crazy.”

Much has already been said about art serving as a panacea for modern woes. If the discourse was ever an interesting conversation, it has been sorely exhausted over two years into the pandemic. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” both does and doesn’t also seek to ameliorate its audience — but the film’s more sentimental aspects would likely come off as overly twee or cloying if they were handled with any less care. 

For actress Stephanie Hsu, part of what allows the film to work is its skillful binding of opposing technological and filial minutiae. The digital maelstrom of the multiverse draws a contrast with the Wang’s modest, sun-swathed laundromat, and it puts everything in perspective.

“One of my favorite moments in the film is at the very end, when (the characters) Waymond and Evelyn kiss at the IRS building outside of the bathroom,” Hsu said. “It is such an imperfect reunion. But that’s what it is … we went to all the universes, and I’m just gonna push past my own discomfort, security ego and smooch you in front of the toilet.”

On the topic of pushing past, Waymond, played by actor Ke Huy Quan, could teach a masterclass. 

“Waymond really believes in kindness,” Quan reflected. “He believes in empathy, because he watches it from the other person’s point of view as well.”

The film also engages the viewer in its empathetic trysts through a marriage on the brink of collapse and a turbulent mother-daughter relationship that puts “Lady Bird” to shame. In the same way that the film gives Michelle Yeoh her due, it elevates motherhood, specifically Asian motherhood to a cultural vanguard it hasn’t previously been given space to occupy.

As Yeoh puts it: “These mothers, they’re invisible. They’re taken for granted.” 

Yeoh also endeavored to serve as a sponge for the pains Asian matriarchs incur, turning an incisive gaze to the physical nuances of Evelyn’s walk.

“I’ve worked on that walk for a while because I see these women who carry heavy loads, not just physical heavy loads, but invisible loads on their back. And they never stand up straight,” Yeoh said.

Though a frequently espoused cultural pylon, empathy is forefronted in the film in a way that eschews artifice or contrivance. What saves the film from certain death at the hands of cringe, is the way it doesn’t offer unrealistic solutions to the malaise endemic to the younger generations. The Daniels also succeed because they did not set out to prescribe or pander to an audience increasingly preoccupied with mental health discourses.

Rather, the mental health slant came about more organically.

“When we started working on the multiverse movie, and realiz(ed), it was a really great avenue for us to talk about nihilism,” Kwan said. “that’s like, ‘Oh, let’s lean into this.’ ”

Nihilism in “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is not abstract, like in many films that venture into the existential. The film has a distinct, quirky visual corollary in the form of a giant pitch-black everything bagel. Reimagined as bread, nihilism is demystified and somewhat stripped of its power. It’s also oddly relatable. 

“This movie is us trying to find a new language for ‘nothing matters’ ” Kwan said. “Within the context of modern life, maybe ‘nothing matters’ is actually freeing rather than restricting.”

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