Everything Everywhere All at Once: wacky science fiction exploration of the nature of nihilism and existential angst

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022)

True to its title, this wacky science fiction / fantasy / philosophy film dips into nearly every major genre of film known, all over the known cinematic universe, nearly all at once … the wonder with all its sub-plots and themes is that the film manages to be quite a coherent whole. Most people may find it difficult to follow though if you are comfortable with the idea of multi-universes existing all at once – with each and every one of us in this universe having doppelgängers in all the other universes existing in parallel dimensions living the lives we might have had, if we had made different decisions earlier in our lives – you will be able to follow and keep up with the sub-plots as they bleed into one another. Into this wild mix, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert deliver a surprisingly profound message about the nature of the universe, the meaning of nihilism and how humans can find meaning and purpose in a universe that is indifferent to human existence and experience.

Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) struggles to keep her laundromat going despite the threat of the Internal Revenue Service to obtain a lien over the business after Wang tries to claim some rather suspect business expenses on her taxes. Life around Wang is falling into pieces: her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is trying to serve divorce papers on her; her father (James Hong) has just arrived from China under the impression the laundromat business is going well; and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is anxious for Wang to accept her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel). The family encapsulates many stereotypes about Chinese immigrant families and their behaviour in the US; in particular, Wang and her daughter have a complicated relationship rooted in Chinese custom, tradition and expectation colliding with current American values about individual freedoms and the belief in the individual right to pursue happiness and to reinvent oneself. Called to a meeting with IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn Wang’s life suddenly takes a different turn when Waymond’s personality changes and he reveals himself as Alpha Waymond from the Alpha universe, come to our universe in search of Wang to help him combat Jobu Topaki, formerly Alpha Joy. Alpha Joy was pushed by Alpha Evelyn, now deceased, to “verse jump” (accessing the skills, experiences and bodies of one’s doppelgängers in parallel universes after fulfilling certain rituals) too extensively; now Alpha Joy / Jobu Topaki has a splintered mind and experiences all universes all at once. She has now created a giant black hole called the “everything bagel” that now threatens to swallow up all the multi-universes ever created, including ours.

Acquiring “verse jumping” technology, Evelyn discovers other lives she could have had, including lives as a martial arts expert / film star (if she had obeyed her father and given up marrying Waymond), a teppanyaki chef, an opera star and Deirdre’s girlfriend. From all of these lives and others, Evelyn gains the powers she needs to defeat Jobu Topaki. She discovers that Jobu Topaki created the Everything Bagel not to destroy everything but to destroy herself – because having experienced everything every universe has to offer, and still encountering chaos, Jobu Topaki has come to believe that nothing matters and life is meaningless.

The film breathlessly jumps from one confounding scenario to another, illustrating the chaos and apparent lack of structure, meaning or continuity from one universe to the next in a nihilistic meta-universe – in one universe, the Wangs are about to lose their laundromat, in another Alpha Waymond dies – but thanks to the energy and zest with which Yeoh, Quan and the cast play their roles, and to clever writing and editing, the film hangs together much better than might be expected. The script-writers use small details from one universe and blow them up into something more important in another universe so despite the multiplicity of universes, there are commonalities that stitch the whole tapestry of universes together. Security guards in one universe become Jobu Topaki’s minions in another and various laundromat customers turn up as singers or fighters in other universes. Bag packs and small dogs become kung fu weapons in different universes! Yeoh and Quan are brilliant in the ways they transition from one role to another as the Wangs jump from one universe to another – though it must be said that many of Evelyn Wang’s different doppelgängers mirror Michelle Yeoh’s real-life experiences as an actor initially specialising in martial arts / action thriller films and then as a global film celebrity. The two main stars are ably supported by a capable cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis in a comic turn as IRS auditor Deirdre.

In addition to exploring nihilism and existential angst, the film can also be read as the experience of an immigrant family under internal and external stress, and how it copes with such stress: in this reading, the film is not so successful at explaining how the Wangs are eventually able to turn their lives around financially and keep their laundromat business and marriage intact. The film can have a third reading as a work about depression, its characteristics and how families might cope and deal with depression and develop the tools for overcoming or moderating it. The answers for dealing with depression and nihilism may be trite and banal – Waymond Wang implores Evelyn and others around him to be kind to one another and to connect with each other – and some viewers may find the resolution of Evelyn’s conflict with Jobu Topaki rather underwhelming, as Evelyn and Joy come to an understanding and reconciliation: Evelyn accepts that she has been pressuring Joy too much to be what Evelyn herself failed to be and that Joy needs her own space.

Perhaps the film tries too hard to be everything everywhere all at once: I’d have liked to have seen something in the film’s plot suggesting that the Wangs come to some realisation that they need help in managing their laundromat business and that the story begun in “Everything Everywhere …” might be continued in a sequel, in which the multi-universes come under attack from a second meta-universe outside them all, and the Wangs are called upon again to marshal all the forces of the multi-universes against the new threat.