One movie, two takes: ‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’

In an era of non-stop superhero movies, A24’s take on a female heroine saving the world — or worlds — is refreshing. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once follows Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese owner of a laundromat with familial and financial woes who is plunged into parallel universes of madness by Jobu Tobaki, an evil version of her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). 

A24 is known for producing films that are complex and sometimes require a second watch. A second viewing of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once may be worth it. 

In addition to action-packed and glamourous “verse jumping”, the film speaks to the real world spectrum of family dynamics — from a Gen Z daughter filled with angst to a father whose face reads disappointment. 

The concept of an infinite number of universes with multiple possibilities that exist in parallel to our own is not new. 

Throughout every multiverse, the audience can’t help but have a soft spot for Evelyn when the accountant (Jamie Lee Curtis) delivers bad news that “her story does not look good”. 

A constant metaphor for the angsty, doom-filled emotions felt by Joy is an everything bagel, one that has every kind of seasoning on it. The everything bagel acts both as a black hole that aims to suck up every multiverse. The bagel itself speaks to the intricacies of the everyday, layered life such as the complex mother-daughter relationship. The two must mend their communication and connection at a battle at the everything bagel. The alpha-universe version of Joy yearns to be understood and accepted by her mother, but must defeat Joy’s evil alter-ego first. 

The film’s directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — known as The Daniels — tells the classic sci-fi story of the multiverse that transcends cultures and tropes by asking the question, “How can one pay attention to the ones we love when the universe is trying to take that attention away from them?” The Daniels’ approach to this classic plot is smart, witty and philosophically extreme.

This multilayered approach means there’s something for everyone in every dimension in Everything Everywhere, All at Once. In addition to funny moments such as Evelyn’s sausage fingers, the everything bagel becomes an inside joke between the characters and the audience. After watching this film, one cannot order a bagel without thinking they have a larger purpose in life. 

The film is an extravaganza where one can have it all. Every generation aims to break the patterns repeated by their parents, and their parents’ parents, but Evelyn and Joy’s tumultuous relationship has certain parallels to the relationship between Evelyn and her father. Beyond the action, the movie offers a sense of tender catharsis. — Kimberley Schoeman 

In another, parallel universe, this became a great movie. Somehow, a tough editor got involved and the writing-and-directing duo, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (The Daniels) were given herbal sedatives to encourage a measure of creative restraint.

But in this universe, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once is a mess. A charismatic mess, but a mess nonetheless.

The content is overwrought and underthought. Lots of sci-fi action films about big ideas (from The Matrix onwards) are undone by a basic structural problem — that big ideas can’t be expressed, let alone absorbed, during small breaks between outbreaks of absurd violence. Getting one’s head around the implications of the existence of countless universes is hard enough at the best of times. It’s impossible if you’re having your senses pulverised every two minutes. It’s a bit like trying to write a philosophy exam in the middle of an extended armed robbery. The upshot is a gradual shrinkage of the idea of infinity.

The other issue is that when it’s not clear which universe we’re in, it’s hard to give a flying kick about what’s going on. The plot is a dizzying checkers game of “verse jumps” (when characters leap into the consciousness of their doubles in parallel universes). But pulling all this cosmic spaghetti into a coherent story doesn’t concern The Daniels too much. They just want to have fun.

Which they do. A fair chunk of the movie is a lot of fun. Michelle Yeoh excels as Evelyn, a tetchy harridan of a Chinese-American laundromat owner with a cheerful dork of a husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan). In the process of a very unwelcome tax audit, in which her deduction claim for a karaoke night is not well received, Evelyn is enlisted into a cosmic battle between the forces of unpleasantness and pleasantness in the multiverse. It seems her all-round incompetence has made her the best woman for the job.

Jamie Lee Curtis is properly funny as Evelyn’s tax auditor Deirdre (and evil parallel versions thereof), a weary, bedraggled pen-pusher/nemesis. Stephanie Hsu, as Evelyn’s unhappy teenage daughter, brings finely drawn pathos and deliciously arch villainy in equal measure, depending on whether she is being Joy or Jobu Tobaki, her powerfully malign doppelganger.

There are moments of ludicrous inspiration — a distant universe in which all the characters have hot dog fingers, and a fight scene in which Deidre’s tax-auditor-of-the-month trophies are repurposed as buttplugs.But the film is not quite funny or inspired enough to merit the hullabaloo and redeem the conceptual audacity. By the end, I felt as if I had been bashed on the head for two hours. And as a parent of young children, I can get that sort of experience at home, for free. — Carlos Amato

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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