How do you deal with a crumbling marriage, an “everything bagel” that threatens to destroy the known multiverse, and–worst of all–overdue taxes? Just add googly eyes.
If you found yourself rolling your own eyes, you agree with Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), the protagonist in Everything Everywhere All at Once. No film quite embodies its title with such perfection as this second feature from directing duo the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). Even before the movie gets into the aforementioned bagel (or the characters with hot dogs for fingers), it immerses you in the “too muchness” of its title.
Back to the googly eyes. Evelyn’s cheery husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) places said items on surfaces throughout their failing laundromat business, in an attempt to lighten the mood. Husband and wife might as well be living in separate worlds; while Waymond tries to find joy in the midst of chaos, Evelyn is keenly aware that “each day has enough trouble of its own.” The Daniels emphasize the claustrophobia of Evelyn’s daily life. As she hacks her way through a jungle of messy receipts before her IRS appointment; prepares dinner for her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel), despite feeling hesitant about their relationship; and tends to her ailing father (James Hong), you can’t help but think she’ll splinter if just one more thing goes wrong.
The Daniels cleverly make these trials feel on par with the multiversal spectacle heading Evelyn’s way, so that by the time things take a turn from the stress-inducing to the bizarre, it's a breath of fresh air. When Evelyn goes to the IRS office, alternate versions of people she knows come spilling out from other universes, telling her that she’s the only one who can defeat the villain Jobu Tupaki, who threatens to destroy the known multiverse. Though initially disinterested (who cares about other universes when, in this one, taxes are due?), Evelyn soon becomes entranced by the infinite other realities–including the other lives she could have lived.
Everything Everywhere All at Once could have spent the rest of its running time relishing in every zany alternate reality the Daniels constructed. But embedded in this collage of excess is a realization of what is lost when we gain the whole world in exchange for our soul. Perhaps by accepting our finitude, we open ourselves up to the radical, upside-down reality found in the gospels: one built on a sacrificial love that embraces the mess we find ourselves in.
Embedded in this collage of excess is a realization of what is lost when we gain the whole world in exchange for our soul.
At first, Evelyn relishes in the “what if.” After visiting a universe where she never married Waymond and became a famous movie star instead, she insensitively tells him, “I saw . . . my life without you. I wish you could have seen it. It was beautiful.” As Evelyn jumps among universes, each one is colorful in a visually arresting way, from the glamor of her life as a movie star to the vibrancy of her work as a hibachi chef. As Evelyn realizes all the places she could be, they stand in stark contrast to the drabness of her own laundromat life.
But there’s a dark side to these temptations, evidenced by Jobu Tupaki, who can embody every reality at once. In one of the film’s many clever action sequences, Jobu (played by Hsu in a dual role) dispatches police officers in idiosyncratic ways. Decked in a glittering white jacket and pink hair, she body slams one officer and makes another explode into confetti before slurping out the bullets from another’s gun, as if it was a straw. It’s all done with the same excess of color that characterized Evelyn’s universe jumping, yet registers as far more sinister. Furthermore, Evelyn begins to vomit after too many “jumps;” it’s as if her finite body begins to reject the infinite that she’s tasted. You see her mind and body fracture onscreen, as if crumbling under the weight of her longing for what could have been.
In the film's most powerful moment, the simmering tension between Evelyn and Joy becomes volcanic. (Spoilers ahead.) Joy tries to leave the family back in Evelyn’s original reality, shouting to her mother, “Let me go!” For a moment, Evelyn entertains it. The Daniels then offer a montage of scenes in which Evelyn lets her daughter go in all realities. (In a world where Evelyn and Joy are rocks–with googly eyes–Joy’s rock tumbles over a cliff, while Evelyn’s remains idle.) From a human perspective, Evelyn’s choice makes sense; she could be anything anywhere all at once, so why bother with this dreary universe, which obviously brings so much pain?
But Evelyn runs after her daughter (and her rock falls down the chasm to chase after Joy’s). “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always . . . always want to be here with you,” she tearfully declares. This picture of sacrificial love mirrors another love that is as beautiful as it is nonsensical: that of the gospel. Of all the realities Christ could have chosen by which to enter the world, such as a conquering king, he instead chose the path of the suffering servant. He does not need us, yet he loves us, abandoning the 99 other realities he could have chosen in favor of the one that means “God with us,” even in our pain.
With its endless options for Evelyn, Everything Everywhere All At Once recognizes that, yes, perhaps the grass is greener in another universe. Maybe we’re right to have FOMO about living our best lives. Yet the movie also suggests that the “best life” isn’t necessarily the version in which we have it all, but the one where we live as those who have been loved, despite our difficulties and mistakes. What better life is there to live than one marked by the kind of love Jesus showed to us: one that pursues us even if it doesn't make sense, one that chases after us fiercely, and one that doesn't see us for the worst things we’ve done. A love that jumps universes.