Everything Everywhere All At Once, the second film from the writer-director duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert is bigger in every way that their extraordinary debut Swiss Army Man – more ambitious, more accomplished, more sprawling, more sentimental and more difficult to encapsulate in a single sentence or review. The bare bones: Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Quan Wang, a disgruntled laundry owner, in a part that was written specifically for her. The film opens with Evelyn, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and her queer daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), all anxiously awaiting a visit to Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), an IRS agent who is conducting an audit on their business. No sooner do they arrive at Deidre’s office, however, than an alternative version of Waymond pulls Evelyn into a closet, informs her that he has arrived from another universe in the multiverse, and challenges her to seek out the alphaverse, the original universe, where she is living and loving her best possible life.
While that quickly paves the way for an astonishing and original multiverse drama, Daniels’ film feels like it’s sitting on the cusp between universes from the very beginning. In a raucous prologue that takes us from Evelyn’s office out to the laundromat floor and back again, the dialogue slips between Chinese and English, while the directors pack their mise-en-scenes with an almost unbearable clutter of material objects (especially receipts) and digital images (especially surveillance footage). Combined with the cacophonous sound design, with several conversations happening at any one time, even these opening few minutes are almost vertiginous to watch, as objects and affects from one space bleed indiscriminately into the next (or invade the spaces we’re currently inhabiting from some as-yet-unglimpsed universe).
The film itself often feels on the verge of a panic attack during these opening minutes, as Evelyn prepares herself for what seems like an audit of her life as much as her business, but it’s also on the verge of dance, a beat away from a line of flight, a bizarre and redemptive choreography. We see several dances or dance lessons in this opening prologue, all of which revolve around a Bollywood film that is playing on loop on the laundromat television. Already, the film is suffused with movements (of both people and the camera) that could devolve further or cohere into a choreographed escape, but for now float queasily between the two.
All of that makes it remarkably difficult to discern a clear point of focus in these opening scenes, which spin and spin without giving us a moment to breathe, forcing the film to double down upon circular motifs as synecdoches for its own restless desire to transcend itself. Like these motifs, Daniels’ world occurs at the exact cusp between centrifugal and centripetal imperatives, charting a radius around an elusive centre that both repels and attracts the camera, forcing it into ever more flamboyant trajectories, until it breaks the continuity of space altogether for the constant jump-cuts that comprise the main body of the film. Even before we get there, however, it’s clear that this push-pull line of flight is intimately bound up with the experience of being Asian American, and the representation of Asian Americans on screen. So susceptible are Asian Americans to typecasting, these early scenes suggest, that it’s dangerous to even depict them, so automatically do lurid tropes and stereotypes follow.
This, then, is the bind of Everything Everywhere All At Once: how do you even represent Asian Americans, at the most literal level, when the entire universe of representation is aligned against them? Daniels’ answer is radical – not merely to shift to other universes (since Asian Americans would presumably be typecast there too, so pernicious are stereotypes) but to situate the entire film on the cusp between universes. Only in the connective tissue of the multiverse, and in the connective tissue between different media platforms, the film suggests, can Asian Americans truly see themselves. This prologue is the only part of the screenplay, then, that genuinely takes place in a single universe (the ending included), and yet it’s clear that Daniels are already restless to collapse and converge the universes crowding in on it all.
No surprise, then, that the three major moments of universe convergence occur at the hands of white representation, here personified by Curtis’ IRS agent. Each of the three sections of the film – “Everything,” “Everywhere” and “All At Once” – are prompted by a different moment in this IRS narrative and each intensifies the porosity between universes. The first occurs when Evelyn and her family arrive at Deirdre’s office, the second when Deirdre turns up to seize their business, and the third just outside the IRS building, on the cusp between the family’s personal space and the white narrative bureaucracy threatening to contain them. Deirdre herself explicitly frames her job as one of narrative and representation, blithely informing Evelyn that “I see a story – with nothing but a stack of tax receipts I can track the ups and downs of your life, and it does not look good.” It’s at this precise moment, the point of ostensible narrative closure, that the multiversal version of Waymond draws Evelyn to the janitor’s closet, the space of submissive Asian labour, and tasks her to recover the alphaverse.
What happens next is harder to describe. For the next two hours, Everything Everywhere All At Once is never quite situated in any one universe, but charts an escalating line of flight to remain on the cusp of all conceivable universes. As a result, the film consists, in large part, of jump cuts from one world to the next – there must be a cut every thirty seconds – producing a kind of accelerated montage that seems to be exceeding the medium of cinema before our eyes. Concomitantly, Evelyn, Waymond and Joy never spend enough time in any one world to either conform to or subvert Asian American tropes, instead accelerating so rapidly through them that they estrange us from them. This, in turn, creates a ripple effect, as stereotypes estrange other stereotypes, allowing the film to involute and eviscerate them from within. To remain in any world for any length of time is to permit stereotypes to return, so the only option is to depart these stereotype-worlds as quickly and ingeniously as possible.
As a sustained gesture of departure, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a truly surreal experience, and different in kind from any film I’ve seen over the last few years. To contour that departure, Daniels render the threshold between worlds ever more bizarre, picaresque and provocative, while condensing their extraordinary eye for detail and meticulous sense of mise-en-scene to the objects and events that populate these cusps, whether it’s chewing gum, paper cuts, or fetishistic probes. Beyond a point, it doesn’t make logical sense, but then again, “the less sense it makes the better,” as objects bleed in from other universes, and every universe becomes porous, messy, contaminated in a good way. Since the characters can’t possibly occupy the cusp between universes forever (or can they?) the final solution is a total convergence of universes, which Daniels represent as a mystical bagel, the culmination of the film’s circular motifs, accompanied by a total inability to distinguish between these universes.
This permeability between universes is probably the most accurate version of how it would feel to surf the multiverse, but it’s also an exhailarating platform for the sheer scope of Daniels’ vision for Asian American identity. By the third act, “All At Once,” the film is a single sustained jump cut, changing and unchanging at the same time, culminating with a strobe-like montage of Evelyn’s multiversal selves at the very moment the IRS threatens to take her to jail. The scale of the film opens up a multiplicity of Asian American identities – the people we have never seen on the big screen, still don’t see on the big screen, and may not see again in the same way on the big screen. As the film reaches its singularity, it glimpses an alternative universe where the last hundred years of cinema were populated, stuffed, overcrowded, with a total heterogeneity of Asian American characters, even as it exhausts cinema in the process, providing us with a plaintive vision of what Hollywood could have been at Hollywood’s end.
In that sense, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a post-cinematic work, but an unusual one, desperate not to let the slow decline of cinema proceed any further without paying tribute to all the Asian American roles that never were. The sheer singularity of this vision is almost blinding, and physically exhausting, taking its toll upon the audience’s body – or displacing the physical toll of Asian American exclusion back onto the audience, until watching the film becomes a kind of athletic feat, a case study in what it means to feel your body under assault from screen culture. Perhaps that’s why it often feels like a game too, since this is a tactile as much as a visual text, crying out for (but also pointedly denying) a console as a visceral intermediary between body and screen. It may be overlong, as some critics have noted, but the length is integral to the richness of its vision, its restless desire for Asian Americans to converge as many universes as possible without settling into the stereotypes of any of them.
Perhaps that also explains why so many of the universes are so juvenile and caricatured in their coordinates. For all their diversity, each world seems to have stagnated identity into a limited number of broad categories, which become more ridiculous as the film proceeds, to the point where identity and universe are coterminous by the final singularity. To inhabit a universe, Daniels suggest, is to immediately succumb to the identity dicta of that universe, meaning the only way to relish an individual identity is to treat the multiverse intersectionally. The grotesque literalism of each individual world thus comes full circle in the film’s vision of a pragmatic intersectionality that exists as a discrete (but fleeting) space between universes, which is where the film must “end” as well. We finally return to the IRS office with the familial and financial relationships restored, but even now the film can’t bear to settle. Instead, it cuts to black just as Deirdre is about to explain the family’s narrative to them, suspending us in the moment right before this story has congealed, on the cusp of yet another limiting universe.