On March 5, in a piece about the Screen Actors Guild Awards, I offered, en passant, an exquisitely nuanced critical aperçu about Everything Everywhere All at Once. To be precise, I declared that it “stinks.” In response, hundreds of readers contacted me, pleading that I write an article explaining in detail why I didn’t like it. No, actually, just one person did that — and it happened to be the publisher of The American Spectator, Melissa Mackenzie. Now, when the person who runs the shop wants you to explain yourself, her vote counts a lot more than any number of urgent entreaties from you shiftless deplorables out there. So here goes.
To begin with, as I noted in the SAG piece, I “bailed out” on Everything about “a third of the way through.” Then I gave it another try. No sale. Several weeks later, I’ve finally watched it again. It wasn’t easy to work up the discipline to revisit that trainwreck. I ended up doing it this way: after buying an Uzi on the black market, I paid an ex-con to train it on me and shoot to kill if I didn’t watch the movie. So I watched it.
First of all, it’s basically a martial arts movie. Never in my life have I been the slightest bit interested in seeing a martial arts movie. I sat through both parts of Kill Bill. It was a lot better than Everything. But still.
Second, it’s also, more broadly, an action flick whose appeal, I would wager, is similar to that of many a superhero fantasy. I don’t get superheroes. Never did. As a kid, I loved Disney comic books — but never the Marvel or DC stuff.
That said, a quick admission: on my initial viewing, I actually enjoyed the first 15 minutes or so of Everything. It looked as if it was going to be a charming, realistic story about a Chinese immigrant couple who run a laundromat in the Simi Valley, live above it in a pleasantly cluttered flat, and have financial problems. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is happy and easygoing; Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is no-nonsense, seems to be disappointed with her life, and can’t get along with her chubby lesbian daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). When they’re alone together, Waymond and Evelyn converse in a constant mixture of English and Chinese. Cute! We speak two languages in exactly that way in my household, too.
Then along comes this multiverse premise. Evelyn and Waymond go to IRS headquarters to discuss their tax issues with an agent named Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis). In the elevator on the way up, a version of Waymond from another universe suddenly enters Waymond’s body and tells Evelyn that there’s an infinity of universes out there, that “a great evil” has been spreading throughout them, and that he’s decided that, owing to her virtue, nobody in that entire infinity of universes is more equipped than she is to defeat that evil. Bottom line: the well-being of the entire “multiverse” depends on Evelyn.
Far-out premise, no? Well, I like far-out premises if they’re carried off well. The Matrix? Genius. The Truman Show? Ditto. Unlike some viewers, I’m also very fond of The Thirteenth Floor (1999), about a virtual reality version of 1930s Los Angeles whose inhabitants don’t know they’re living inside a computer program. But the multiverse story in Everything? Once the premise is established, you might expect a series of clever plot developments. But no: we go right into kung fu. Or karate. Or whatever it is. One by one, the man in Waymond’s body takes down several armed IRS guards, using his fanny pack as a whip. The sequence seems to go on forever. It’s obviously supposed to be fun. It’s torture. One can’t wait for something else — anything else.
Eventually it ends. But guess what? It’s followed by another sequence very much like it. And another. And another. In fact, pretty much every sequence in this movie provides yet another dose of martial arts — most of it not executed by Waymond, but by Evelyn, who, after learning how to transport herself instantly into other universes, experiences (usually for little more than the blink of an eye) some of the many different lives she’s led there: a sushi chef, a maid, and (significantly) a Chinese kung fu master who becomes a star of Chinese kung fu movies, and whose gifts Evelyn herself learns to wield to great effect.
In those other universes, but also, apparently, in her own, Evelyn encounters alternate versions of Waymond, of Joy, of Deirdre, of her father (James Hong). Somewhere along the way you’d think there’d have been, oh, a hint of plot development. Instead it’s just more and more martial arts, presumably in the cause of rescuing the multiverse, an astonishing amount of it taking place — still, an hour or two in! — in the IRS building.
And all that really varies along the way, aside from the occasional very brief scene set in nature, are the costumes — which, as denizens of other universes turn up, grow increasingly goofy. At one point, Joy turns up in a purple wig, with a pet pig. When there’s a second or third standoff with the IRS guards — I lost count (and how could anybody be satisfied with just one?) — one of those guards, apparently as a result of some interuniversal hocus-pocus, is suddenly dressed like Carmen Miranda. There’s also a talking raccoon, and a universe where everybody has hot dogs instead of fingers, and another where everybody seems to worship a giant spinning bagel. Even in what’s meant (I gather) to be our universe, wackiness abounds. Deirdre’s last name is Beaubeirdre — as in “The Name Game,” get it? When she shows Waymond and Evelyn her IRS awards for professional distinction, they’re dildos.
This stuff is apparently supposed to be hilarious. Now, I like to think of myself as a person who can appreciate a wide range of humor, from The Importance of Being Earnest to The Jerk. A few titles, off the top of my head, of movies I find sidespilling: The Producers, Tootsie, This Is Spinal Tap, Bringing Up Baby, Dumb and Dumber, Some Like It Hot, Animal House. Not to mention every last one of Woody Allen’s “early, funny ones,” plus a good many of his later ones. I love ’em all. And I just adore the sheer silliness of Airplane and Naked Gun and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Yes, Everything is silly, too — but it’s not funny. It’s witless. It’s the celluloid equivalent of an amusement park ride — only in this case they take you on the ride a dozen or more times before they let you go. The gags, if you can call them that, just keep repeating, with very slight variations. So do the plot twists, if that’s what they are. There should, as in any good film, be rising tension, building drama; instead, the movie doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes, indeed, it reminds me of Vivarium (2019), in which a young couple tries to escape the suburb they’re driving around in, but keep finding themselves passing the same house. The difference is that Vivarium is compelling: it does have rising tension. Everything is just repetitive.
Come to think of it, watching Everything, about these laundromat owners, is not unlike being trapped in a washing machine. Everything and everybody is tumbling all over the place, then there’s a moment or two of stasis (where you think the wash cycle may be finally about to wrap up), and then the tumbling — the torture — resumes. The acting is one-note. So are the camera moves. How many times do we see Evelyn in tight close-up, staring at us, the same look of shock on her face, as the clothing, makeup, and background shift several times a second? At one point, it occurred to me that the writer-directors (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as The Daniels) could have rearranged the movie’s sequences entirely at random without making it appreciably better or worse.
Yes, I know it won best picture, best director, best original screenplay, and three acting awards. I know the critics loved it. To try to figure out why, I’ve looked at all the positive reviews I could find. Eric Webb of the Austin American-Statesman compared watching Everything to being on hallucinogens. Sorry, but I don’t want to feel like I’m on hallucinogens. He praised it as “a google-eyed cartoon cataclysm” — which sounds about right, though it’s hardly my idea of a compliment. He also celebrated what he took to be the film’s message: “‘We have to be kind,’ a character says at a climactic moment, ‘especially when we don’t know what’s going on.’” But how do two and a half hours of martial arts add up to that theme? (For that matter, where’s the evidence for Evelyn, who’s frankly something of a pill, being the multiverse’s ultimate exemplar of goodness?)
Then there’s Dan Gire of the Chicago Daily Herald, who applauded Everywhere, “an exhausting, confusing, hilariously funny, pleasing assault on the ears and eyes.” I can’t think of a movie I’ve ever liked that I’d describe as “exhausting,” as “confusing,” or as an “assault.” Or take Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, who acclaimed the film for “urg[ing] us to free our minds and accept that it’s OK to be strange.” What does that even mean? Free our minds from what? In the year 2023, who on earth needs to be told that “it’s OK to be strange”?
Wenlei Ma of news.com.au called it “a wholly original movie at a time when originality is in short supply”; Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe said it has “inventiveness and sheer buoyancy … in abundance.” How many movies have these critics seen? Have they ever watched anything from before, say, 1990? Have all the asinine superhero reboots and sequels of recent years made them feel that anything remotely different from them is a masterpiece of creativity?
Mike Scott of the New Orleans Times-Picayune eulogized the film as “wonderfully weird,” and other reviewers said the same thing in different words. Caryn James of the BBC wrote: “delightfully bonkers.” Larushka Ivan-Zadeh of Metro went with “brilliantly bananas,” while Linda Marric of Jewish Chronicle opted for “brilliantly chaotic.” (Brilliantly chaotic? Artistic brilliance lies in making order out of chaos.) For Emily Zemler of the Observer, the picture was “an explosion of creative weirdness.”
Peter Travers of ABC News put it this way: “a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption.” Volcano? A volcano spews out magma; magma, reaching the surface, becomes lava; lava, hardening, becomes rock; and rock, when sculpted by a master, can become the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David. But the stuff that spews out of a volcano isn’t art yet. As for “creative ideas,” it’s interesting to note Scheinert’s acknowledgment that Everything’s script was put together from “leftover ideas” that the Daniels had accumulated over the years. Leftovers, yes. But ideas? What ideas? The giant bagel? The Carmen Miranda outfit?
I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the reviewers for a couple of publications I generally despise. At the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called Everything “frantically hyperactive and self-admiring and yet strangely laborious, dull and overdetermined, never letting up for a single second to let us care about, or indeed believe in, any of its characters.” Bingo. And at the New Yorker, Richard Brody provided a definitive answer to those praising the movie’s supposed imaginativeness. “The template for E.E.A.A.O.,” he wrote, “isn’t the observation of life from the amplified perspective of imagination; it’s the factitious world of superheroes, adorned with the action of martial arts movies and the dazzle of effects and gaudy costumes, filled with undergraduate late-night epiphanies and sophomoric humor.”
Melissa Mackenzie told me she liked Everything largely because, in the end, “it’s about family.” I get her point. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a scene between Evelyn and Joy that’s actually touching — and that gives Yeoh her first opportunity to broaden the one-note performance she’s been giving us for two hours. I can totally understand being swayed about a movie at the eleventh hour: what made me fall in love with the 1983 Robert Duvall movie Tender Mercies was the very last line of dialogue, which references the title. But for me, at least, the sweet moments between Evelyn and Joy were too little, too late — and too damn disconnected from everything that’s gone before.