You could describe our passage through life as an accumulation of regrets, of opportunities missed and promising roads not traveled. We rise through youth bearing dreams of becoming astronauts or rock stars, or at the very least not disappointing our parents; we ultimately settle for smaller victories, savoring financial independence or whatever slice of happiness we can find. We compromise and forgive and compromise again, as the once-open canvas of life is weighed down by responsibilities and disappointments, a thousand thousand doors closed forever behind us. And slowly, what once seemed like active choices become the terms of your imprisonment, the endless cycles that define your journey from unhappy adulthood to the grave.
Evelyn Quan Wang is trapped in those cycles as Everything Everywhere All At Once begins, dealing with the immediate concerns of her father’s birthday and laundromat’s audit while buckling under the weight of a million missed opportunities. She is remarkable in her capacity for false starts, as an alternate version of her husband Waymond will tell her; she has taken three steps towards everything, but ultimately ended up here, in an endless repetition of laundry and taxes and taxes and laundry. The cycle is inescapable, eternal, ever-present; it is clear in the circling of her non-deductible expenses, the leering ring of her mirror, the bagel that is her depressed, all-seeing daughter’s desire for oblivion made manifest.
Because yes, Evelyn has greater problems than ensuring a successful audit. In our universe, Evelyn’s fear of missed chances and disappointing her father have left her and her daughter Joy estranged, the dissatisfaction that has defined Evelyn’s life filtering down into a constant berating of her daughter’s choices. But in another, Evelyn’s generational trauma has done a touch more damage – has in fact awakened her daughter to the infinite opportunity of recognizing every single reality at once, which of course instantly made each of those realities meaningless and unsatisfying. Evelyn seeks opportunities missed, but Joy embodies opportunities claimed – and either way, the paralyzing spread of such possibilities ultimately robs your own choices of any satisfaction or meaning.
Evelyn is tasked with defeating this potential daughter, an objective that demands similarly expanding her awareness to every potential alternate self. These selves are realized in glorious fashion by co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are no strangers to wild visual ornamentation and cinematic maximalism. Prior to this film, I would have called that a fault – but for conveying the anxious world of Evelyn Wang, they are undeniably perfectly suited. Even before learning to switch between realities, Evelyn’s world is defined by vast arrays of background detritus, of knickknacks and discarded instruments that speak to a lifetime of never finding the right passion. And when the Daniels are tasked with inventing and traversing a multiverse, magic happens.
The two are clearly in their element exploiting our current cultural tolerance for multiverses, diverting our superhero-saturated populace into accepting alternate realities not for the sake of hoary plot, but for far more significant causes: thematic purpose and plain old visual playfulness. The incidental substance of our lives is revealed through the Daniels’ eye for visual detail, while their irrepressible playfulness is given a natural vehicle through mechanical inventions like “dial switching” and “jump pads,” all of which infuse the film with ingenuity and humor without detracting from its emotional heft. You can lead a horse to absurdism infused with thematic resonance, but only a lifetime of watching heroes jump between realities could convince your average horse to drink.
The potentially limitless tonal discordance of Evelyn’s multiverse is grounded via winking aesthetic homage. Evelyn’s trip to the auditor, which doubles as her initial introduction to the multiverse, is presented as a clear riff on Neo’s office chase in The Matrix, down to its sickly green color correction and bizarre radio instructions. Her sepia life is a literal pale imitation of the universe where she is a movie star, reuniting with Raymond after years apart. Caught in tastefully decaying alleys and surrounded by a rich bloom of bokeh, their reunion is a clear riff on In the Mood for Love, distilling Wong Kar-wai’s treatise on love and longing down to a few sparse minutes. Is their world truly so glamorous? Perhaps it is only our own Evelyn’s hunger making it so.
Because that is what Everything Everywhere All at Once is ultimately about: not the fight to save all realities, but the battle to find meaning in any reality, in both the choices we’ve made and the roads not traveled. To be present, in this time and this moment – to understand that “I know you have a lot on your mind, but nothing could be more important than this conversation we’re having right now.” Admittedly, seeing all universes at once can make it difficult to find meaning in any one of them; that is the curse that shattered Joy, a metaphor that works just as well for attention deficit as for life-long regrets. She lives in “a lifetime of shattered moments,” ultimately embracing nihilism and non-existence over the pain of countless meaningless realities. “If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away.”
Neither Evelyn’s frantic scramble for happy fragments, nor Joy’s fatalistic abandonment of those fragments’ potential, can save them from the despair of knowing they have always and will always waste their life, ending up as disappointments to the people who raised them. One cannot happily live in all potential lives at once; attempting to find the “correct” path will only lead to Evelyn’s anxiety or Joy’s depression, as the expectations we’ve failed to meet calcify into an overwhelming certainty of failure and disappointment. Evelyn’s early attempts to console her daughter only reaffirm that certainty; though she acknowledges Joy’s desire to “give up,” she characterizes that desire as something apart from Joy, an interloper that could theoretically be excised. Parents always want their children to be happy, and that can express itself as a desire to return those children to the simple, easy joy of childhood itself. But many of us are just kind of broken in some way or another, and our parents must learn to love us even if we don’t end conforming to the shapes they desired, or don’t seem as effortlessly happy as we once were.
Evelyn cannot “fix” Joy, and she cannot claim all of the multiverse’s endless scattered pleasures. Even when provided with the key, reaching out to these worlds only exacerbates her anxiety and dissatisfaction, offering a thousand worlds where nothing means anything, where “everything we do gets washed away in a sea of other possibilities.” Salvation does not come from compressing all of these diverse pleasures into one coherent, rightful timeline – it comes from the one member of the Wang family who is left out of these pan dimensional travels, from the man Evelyn cannot help but refer to as “my stupid husband.” Like everything else in Evelyn’s life, Waymond is pushed aside in the pursuit of greater happiness, like a hobby she discarded years ago. But confused and frightened as he is, Waymond is the only one of them who has any comprehension of what is important – of how crucial this exact moment could be, if Evelyn would only let it.
When asked how he “defeated” the auditor looming over Evelyn’s life, he replies “I don’t know. I just talked to her.” Waymond is, quite simply, capable of seeing a brighter side, of actually hoping things will work out. Compared to his wife and daughter, his earnest engagement with the world is practically a superpower – and as Evelyn eventually admits, his presence in their lives could not be more essential. A nervous and sometimes silly man, but one who nonetheless sees the endless beauty in the world, and encourages the rest of us anxious messes to see it too.
“When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive,” Wong Kar-wai Waymond tells Wong Kar-wai Evelyn. “It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.” This Waymond suffered profound heartbreak, watching Evelyn walk away and become a movie star, the love of his life forever lost to him. It would be easy for such disappointments to drive us into despair, encourage us to wallow in all of the things we cannot fix, cannot change. But we can also choose to see the things that bring us happiness, choose to focus on the bright spots among the chaos, the “few specks of time where any of this makes sense.” There are always a thousand reasons to give up, to despair, to concern ourselves only with the opportunities we’ve lost. But there are also good things in this world, if we can be mindful, be present enough to appreciate them.
“The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind,” Waymond continues. It is the same final lesson offered by that relentless cynic Kurt Vonnegut, the only piece of wisdom that ultimately matters. We must be kind to each other, and kind to ourselves, lest the cyclical negativity hanging above us carries on to hurt the ones we love. We must forgive ourselves for not opening all of those doors, and accept that not everyone will do the same – to assume the same bravery as Evelyn facing her father, stating “it’s okay if you’re not proud of me. Because I finally am.” It’s a lesson we could all take a little closer to heart; myself certainly, as someone who broke into heavy, ugly tears at Joy’s question of “why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than just… this?” We are all less than we’d hoped, but also more than we could imagine, if we can only find something irreplaceable in our own tawdry, wandering lives. Be present, be kind, be thankful, and let the world take care of the rest. Glamorous or not, all that is good in life is contained in the simplest cycles – in doing laundry and taxes with the people you love.