5/10 They say the two things you can’t avoid are death and taxes. Even in a movie about jumping through the multiverse, one that built an advertising campaign around introducing the concept to audiences, the characters can’t find their way out of the IRS office.
San Fernando, California- Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh, who also produces executively) is dealing with everything at once. Her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is leaving her, her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is gay and her failing self-service laundry is under audit by the IRS for fraudulent business expenses, charges she hopes she can get out of by playing dumb but also seems to genuinely not understand. At the IRS office, Waymond Wang suddenly becomes a different version of himself from a parallel universe and urgently tells Evelyn that she is the key to saving the multiverse from the Jobu Tupaki, a nihilistic gay multiverse demon who’s destroying everything for reasons unknown.
Everything Everywhere All at Once would be more appropriately titled Martial Arts in a drabbier-than-you’d-expect IRS Office for about 20 minutes too long. The movie advertised on its expansive, multiversal settings is uncomfortably cramped, and several choices draw a lot of attention to how cramped it is. The movie was made for an audience that may not know what a multiverse is, so the movie dedicates a lot of time to fleshing out its version of the concept and impressing what an expansive idea this is, but then it spends the rest of its time presenting a multiverse that feels extremely small.
How it works is characters who know what they’re doing can “verse-jump,” temporarily possess other versions of themselves from nearby parallel universes, sometimes to communicate or escape death in their home universe, but most often to acquire some sort of specialized skill to get out of a jam. Doing this accurately requires coordination with the Alpha universe, where Alpha Waymond works to identify the skills Evelyn needs and the random action she needs to take in order to best sync with that universe – in the first example, Waymond Wang eats an entire tube of Blistex, because that’s been calculated as the most likely thing the other version of himself who knows Kung Fu would do.
This becomes part of the movie’s appeal, watching characters do these random, silly things in the process of verse-jumping, though they never seem all that random or all that silly. It’s like an extended “Impractical Jokers” sketch – you can tell the people coming up with the pranks are having a wonderful time, but it’s the difference between watching someone have fun and having fun yourself.
The call-to-adventure moment is in the elevator up to their appointment with the IRS inspector. Everything Everywhere all at Once never really leaves this horrible-looking IRS office, and I’m never really going to stop complaining about it. It’s green, dirty, dingy and windowless, the satire of a miserable archipelago of cubicles from a late ‘90s movie that no human could possibly be expected to return to day after day. In March 2022, almost precisely two years after leaving my own spacious cubicle with the verdant green view behind forever, it is a reminder of the part of the capitalist hellscape that was mercifully put down by the pandemic, the crushing monotony replaced by visual repulsiveness. This is the perfect launching point for this movie about the infinite multiverse, where any universe with any colored sun or economic system or lawbook of physics could be visited, and the movie seems ready to expand after its necessarily long introductory act, but then Evelyn turns around and runs back into the office.
One of the core concerns with putting superheroes into theaters was what kinds of comic book silliness mainstream audiences would accept. When complex, violent crime dramas about masculinity and urban hopelessness like Heat and Seven are playing down the hall from a movie about a dude who dresses up in a rubber batsuit, it seems like it might be a bridge too far. Will mass audiences, successful men with disposable cash who used to bully dorks who collected comic books, go see a movie with webshooters in it? Now it’s 30 years later, mainstream moviegoers have been replaced by something called “fandoms,” and comic book movie series are in a multi-front arms race trying to get as zany as possible. In 2022, the marquee comic book movie has the word “multiverse” in the title, and Everything Everywhere all at Once positioned itself to claim the concept for a more mature film. If these things can be in comic book movies, there’s no reason they can’t be in a real movie, too.
But after going to great lengths to establish this specific position on Marvel’s coattails, Everything Everywhere all at Once does very little with the concept. It feels like the Daniels – writer/director/producer duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – and their team had exactly one brainstorming session and then used every single idea from it without ever refining them or pulling threads toward new ideas.
The only skills anyone can think to pull from the infinite multiverse are martial arts. Those are the only skills anyone can think to apply to a situation – in fairness, this was always intended as a martial arts movie, initially written for Jackie Chan to lead. Evelyn Quan Wang doesn’t find some version of herself who’s a family therapist with conflict resolution skills or an expert tax lawyer with the smarts to save her own bacon, she only looks for movie stars and other physical talents. It’s just a lot of exotic karate and flamboyant kills, decently shot, better than usual for contemporary action, but not anything to write home about.
It kind of feels like watching a middle school talent show in which every entrant is singing, that’s the only talent in the world, what’s functionally become a karaoke night with no booze that someone’s mom is obsessively keeping to a strict schedule.
This “single brainstorming session” feeling really gets forceful once Evelyn Wang starts verse-jumping. We see a handful of variations on the same characters, and as the movie progresses, we keep revisiting this same handful of variations in slightly different moments, always in all-too-brief breaks from that dingy IRS office, where the main characters end up staying for the entire film. In the climactic battle, the primary version of Evelyn Wang has jumped through dozens of universes in two hours of screentime, but also somehow only made it from the cubicles to the main lobby, and as we round the second act primed to find a grand new place to fight out the finale, they bring in a bunch of other characters from all across the multiverse to slug it out in this god damn IRS office.
A point I’ve seen made is that Everything Everywhere all at Once is the kind of fresh, creative idea that’s going to inspire the next generation of filmmakers, not middle-America Disney monoliths, and there’s a degree of truth to that. At any moment in history, the filmmakers who are really going to make waves 10 years from now are watching what’s underground and foreign, not what’s popular, and as it progresses into a pitifully basic exploration of nihilism, it has the philosophical chops to open teenage minds who haven’t encountered the idea before, but it doesn’t really have the cinematic chops.
Everything Everywhere all at Once has got flamboyant sets – that it barely spends time in, preferring the IRS office – and the special effects are fine and the editing is competent and the camera movement is excellent when it comes up, but they aren’t telling the story. The story is told only with dialogue. There’s no sudden pan and integrated flashbacks as the narrator realizes he’s Tyler Durden. The action is fine, but it’s nothing remotely like Neo discovering himself through violence. The type of creativity this film is interested in, caring strictly about how expansive it can make its cannon, is almost more appropriate for a book, which can be read at a measured pace and packed with detail to the point of absurdity without causing any other problems.
Everything Everywhere all at Once is a decent, enjoyable and technically competent film, but it’s nowhere near everything it promises to be and doesn’t go everywhere it promises to go. In truth, it can’t get out of the IRS office.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at email@example.com.