** Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the film Everything Everywhere All at Once **
If you were able to see how your life would turn out if you made different choices—if you broke up with that person or took that stretch job across the country, how would that change things for you now? Would you have more peace and confidence in your decisions?
This question is the conceit of Everything Everywhere All at Once, a wild romp through the multiverse from A24 Studios. In it, the central character Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese-American laundromat owner, starts the film dissatisfied with where she and her family are in life—and ends with a new resolve and intentionality that structures her relationships with herself and with the people she loves. Playful and nonsensical, the film at its heart is a meditation on the value of the obligations and traditions that we look to for meaning and the importance of love.
At first, Evelyn’s commitment to her own rules or sense of duty is ironclad, governing her relationship with her family and with her business. As the movie opens, she is dashing back and forth through her home and the laundromat, seemingly the only one competent enough to tackle its business. She sorts receipts for a tax audit, finishes and serves supper (noodles), locates a bag of misplaced clothing, corrects a customer trying to use the wrong machine and warns him that if it breaks, he’ll pay for it, and pulls googly eyes off the laundry sacks and walls where her happy-go-lucky husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), has stuck them, in an attempt to bring a little levity to their complicated life. For Evelyn, the success of the business, and with it, her family, depends on her. As the camera smoothly tracks from errand to errand to errand—all within the same tiny, confined space—it captures the chaos and urgency Evelyn feels trying to hold everything together.
This is an extra difficult challenge for Evelyn, since on top of all her usual responsibilities, the IRS is auditing the laundromat, her estranged father is visiting from China, and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, in an incredibly versatile performance) has brought her non-Chinese girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to introduce to her grandfather (James Hong). In each case, Evelyn is caught wrong-footed. With the IRS, we learn, Evelyn and Waymond have been deducting personal expenses such as a karaoke machine from the business, an action that the IRS agent (a wonderfully frumpy, tactless Jamie Lee Curtis) threatens could lead to fraud charges. Evelyn objects: the IRS targets Asian people, and after all, they’ve only followed the instructions given for completing their taxes.
With Joy and Becky, Evelyn feels even more lost, worried that her daughter coming out to her father will upset his traditional, cultural sensibilities. Joy follows her mother from laundry machine to laundry machine, desperately trying to capture Evelyn’s attention, to convince her mother to see her point of view, but Evelyn, continually interrupted by laundromat business, cannot pay attention. Ultimately, when Joy tries to greet her grandfather, Evelyn seizes on her daughter’s difficulty conversing in Chinese to interrupt her: “This is Becky. Joy’s very good friend.” Deeply hurt, Joy abruptly leaves the room.
(Much) later in the film, in a heart-to-heart with her daughter, Evelyn tries to explain her goal: “I’ve always tried to do right by you.” Caught amidst a flood of competing obligations, laundromat and family and traditional cultural celebrations, Evelyn tries to do right by all of them—tries to ensure the business she started with her husband thrives, tries to make sure her daughter is looked after, tries to please her father. Not only is it impossible for Evelyn to simultaneously uphold every single obligation, but her attitude towards these obligations (that they are something she needs to get right) underscores that for her, these are actions largely performed without love, or at least without attention to love. Evelyn does love her family, but that love is subordinated to doing right by them, to upholding the various obligations placed on her. For Evelyn, following the rules—and trying to ensure her family does too, keeping her husband from putting googly eyes on things and criticizing her daughter’s choices—comes first.
This all changes when Evelyn enters the multiverse. During a visit to the IRS with her husband and father, Evelyn is ambushed, first in an elevator and then in a supply closet, by a man who looks like her husband and who claims he is her husband, but from another universe—the Alpha-Verse, the universe where the multiverse was first discovered.
If you’re interested in a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once, the concept of the multiverse is likely familiar to you, though here, two features are unique. First, people who know the trick are able to “verse jump,” to access the skills and memories of other versions of themselves, usually by doing something weird (the first time Evelyn verse jumps, she has to profess her love to the IRS agent trying to charge them with fraud—and mean it). Second, the multiverse is threatened by Jobu Tupaki, a sort-of villain who, visiting too many universes without returning to the original, now simultaneously inhabits them all and is able to alter reality within them. This danger, Evelyn is told, is something that only she can guard against.
The process Evelyn follows in resisting, then taking up, and then finally making this quest her own is moving, and better experienced in a theater than read about. What I do want to focus on here is the way that Evelyn’s discovery of and participation in other universes (and other versions of herself) invite her out of the world of multitudinous pressures and obligations where she started the film. The other universes function as escape routes, giving Evelyn a chance to explore who she might have been or to shrug off, at least briefly, the weight of obligation.
In one universe, the most alluring to Evelyn, she denies Waymond’s marriage proposal and remains in China, learning martial arts and eventually becoming a wealthy movie superstar. (This universe deliberately parallels Yeoh’s own life.) With no gratingly cheerful husband here, no confusing daughter or disapproving parent, Evelyn is able to bask in the spotlight and drink in the pleasures of success after success denied her in her laundromat reality. Indeed, in this world it is less wealth per se than Evelyn’s obvious success that she finds so attractive. This world has such pull because in it, Evelyn finally managed to follow the rules, including crucially, the rule that changed it all: not marrying Waymond when her parents disapproved of him. For Evelyn, caught amidst the pressures of her laundromat world and the sudden, new pressure of saving the world, the desire to just stay in this world, where she has achieved success by following the rules and figuring out how to turn them to her favor, runs strong.
Surprisingly attractive is also a universe where Evelyn exists as a rock, along with her daughter Joy, also a rock. (We learn that this universe is one of the many where human life never evolved.) The two rocks, mother and daughter, sit together quietly, looking out over the Grand Canyon. The attraction of this universe is conveyed through negation. After the chaotic colors and movement of the film up to this point, with multiple split-screens to convey multiple universes and the jarringly swift jumps from one universe to another, the rock universe provides a chance to breathe. There is no soundtrack, only the gentle sound of wind in a vast empty space. There is also no conversation, only text on the screen as Joy-rock and Evelyn-rock quietly talk with each other. “It’s nice,” Joy-rock says. Her comment captures the attractiveness of this world. After all the pressures of trying to get things right, of fulfilling obligations, an escape into a world where there are not only no obligations but no human life at all is deeply tempting. If Evelyn cannot be wealthy, then at least she and Joy can be here, resting.
But the real solution comes in a conversation Evelyn has with Waymond, in the universe where she did not marry him and went on to become a martial arts movie star. Standing outside the theater, decked to the nines, they talk together about what might have been. Waymond is still attracted to her, telling her that “in another life, I would have loved doing laundry and taxes with you.” Yet Waymond also senses the gulf between them, a fundamentally different way of viewing the universe that prevents them in this world from making a life together. This gulf turns on Waymond’s generosity towards other people and his verve for life. As Waymond explains to Evelyn, “You think because I’m kind that it means I’m naive, and maybe I am. It’s strategic and necessary. This is how I fight.”
Evelyn has, up till now, put much less stock in kindness than in getting things right. The laundromat running smoothly is more important than taking time to appreciate her husband’s joke of putting googly eyes on everything, or listening to her daughter’s concerns about introducing Becky to her grandfather. Waymond, however, is kind in every universe, carving out time to enjoy life. In one scene, chased by the bad guys, he pauses in an IRS conference room to hungrily tuck into leftover bagels and cream cheese (he explains there are no cows to produce cream cheese in his universe). Here, suave and wealthy, Waymond nevertheless takes time to speak with Evelyn despite her rejection of him all those years ago. Crucially, kindness for Waymond is not a callous glossing over of human hurt and pain; in this conversation with Evelyn, as with others in the film, he does not shy away from difficult truths, nor does he insist to others that they should be positive about tragedies. His claim that kindness is “how I fight” emphasizes that this is a choice that Waymond makes for himself, not for anybody else. His kindness is “strategic and necessary,” acknowledging pain and (re)packaging it in a way that effectively fights against it. For Waymond, choosing to be kind amidst a world that is increasingly, overwhelmingly unkind and chaotic imposes order on the world and restores it, making it (despite everything) worth living in.
All at Once
Near the end of the film, Evelyn encounters Joy again. By this point, deeply upset by her own adventures through the course of the film, Joy has largely given up on Evelyn. In the rock universe, Joy-rock purposefully rolls off a cliff, tumbling down into the canyon below, anything to get away from her mother-rock.
But, changed by her experiences in the multiverse, Evelyn refuses to give up on her relationship with her daughter. In the rock universe, defying the laws of physics, she first scoots closer to her daughter-rock and then also rolls off a cliff after Joy, the two rocks tumbling down together. In the laundromat (the original universe of this film), Evelyn also goes after Joy. She makes amends by introducing Becky properly to her father as Joy’s girlfriend, grabbing both girls’ hands and holding them there, defying her father’s cultural sensibilities. (Despite his gruff exterior, her Chinese father has a soft spot and takes Joy’s sexuality in stride.) When Joy, embarrassed by this sudden and unexpected display from her mother, runs outside, Evelyn follows. Joy, on the brink of tears, tells Evelyn that although it’s good she’s “working out her issues” about her daughter having a girlfriend, it cannot make up for a lifetime of conflict, and perhaps it’s better if they go their separate ways.
Evelyn will not have it, however. This time around, she is choosing to love her daughter: “Of all the places I could be, I just want to be here with you,” she says. Evelyn “could be” a lot of places indeed, since the movie implies that having visited universe upon universe, Evelyn could choose to stay in any one of them; she could have chosen to remain with the movie star universe, abandoning her husband and daughter to the grim laundromat existence and enjoying the spotlight. Also, because her journey through other universes has given her special insights, Evelyn knows that in the laundromat universe, she and Joy will never quite understand each other, that the love they have for each other will only partially and occasionally be recognized. Despite all this, however, despite more comfortable universes and the persistent challenges of loving a child who grew up to be very different from you, Evelyn chooses this universe anyway. She chooses this universe for the moments of affection she will have with her daughter (and husband), hungrily pursuing the opportunities she has for love and kindness.
Crucially, the love that Evelyn has for her family is not (wholly) on her terms. Choosing to love Joy and to love her husband means that Evelyn has to give up her desire for control, to get things right and have them be right. This does not mean that Evelyn gives up who she is, a middle-aged Chinese woman. Near the end of the film, we hear her lovingly chiding Becky about her undercut and urging her to grow out her hair. But Evelyn does have to give up, finally, the burden of being the one who holds the family together, through her rigid commitment to particular ways of being. Loving Joy means, finally, accepting her daughter’s difference; loving Waymond means stopping in the middle of the IRS office on their way to an important meeting to kiss him. None of Evelyn’s rules matter; as the movie proceeds, it explicitly undoes each one of them, demonstrating their meaninglessness in the overall structure of the universe(s). No accomplishment Evelyn can reach, no expectation she can uphold, no truth she clings to can ultimately give order to her life. Rather, like Waymond in the martial arts universe, she finds that the way to restore a sense of purpose is to craft it through loving, sacrificial relationships with the people around her.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a highly chaotic movie, which somehow takes (among other things) an everything bagel, hot dog fingers, and a man turning into confetti and makes a story out of them. (As part of this chaos, the film does earn its R rating, through violence, pixedlated nudity, and running gags featuring sex toys, among other ways.) Yet chaotic as it is, somehow, the film is also deeply moving to watch, a joy to watch. Yeoh, nearly 60 years old, is a graceful, powerful martial artist, and the multiverse concept gives her a wide range to deploy her skills, from performing more classical kung fu to spinning a sign advertising a pizza agency and in so doing, fighting off the people trying to kill her and her family. The universes are vividly rendered with color, detail, imagination, and humor. In one, where Evelyn is a chef, she contends with a rival chef who, we come to find out, owes his excellence to a raccoon hidden under his hat (a deliberate, cheeky nod to Ratatouille). The movie moves smoothly from English to (subtitled) Chinese—both Mandarin and Cantonese—and then to no language at all in the rock universe, capturing a multi-faceted, fast-paced vibe that fits the film’s concept.
But joyful as the visual effects are, the heart of the movie is the care and love the characters have for each other. Discovering, in the end, that all the rules that give their life meaning are ultimately meaningless (how could they not be meaningless in a world as expansive as one with an infinity of infinite universes?), they at once lean into and resist that nihilism, imposing order by noticing and caring for each other as individuals. Choosing love, even when they don’t entirely understand each other, takes the meaninglessness of individual existence and insists on its meaningfulness, restoring the characters to each other at the end of the film.
We are currently in the Easter season, and among the key messages of the Easter Season is this, that we find hope and meaning not in doing right or being right but in the love and kindness shown to us by God in Christ, and enacted in our relationships with other people. All too easily we forget this. We make up new rules, that we can only be on the path to God if we’re getting things right: reading the Bible or praying the right number of times, going to the right denomination, voting the right way, upholding the right gender norms, loving the right people in the right way, following the right people and saying the right things, on social media and elsewhere. But this prescriptiveness, this insistence that if we follow the correct rules, rules we have ourselves made up, has nothing to do with “the drawing of this love, and the voice of our calling” as believers.
This is not to say that we should not make decisions about (say) voting or church attendance wisely, though there are perhaps more wise answers than, led astray by a preference for tradition and our own ways, we would expect. Too often what we assume is “right” is highly contingent on our own situation in a particular place and time; obligations are not static, Platonic ideals but emerge from our relationships with other people. Confronted with the enormity of God’s love for us, the reality that God has the answers and even our interpretation of God’s answers falters, we no longer “have to go on pretending [we] were right,” as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce. Even upholding obligations to our fellow humans, and to the work we do in the places in which we do it, does not create meaning, however important those obligations are; as the Apostle Paul reminds us, all our work is nothing without love—without, in other words, a commitment to prioritize the agency and well-being of others, and care for them well.
Evelyn (re)imposes meaning, in an infinite, expanding universe where meaninglessness feels like the only option, by choosing to be in Joy’s life, to notice her daughter and to accept her on her terms, though this challenges Evelyn’s notions of what her obligations to her family are and what a loving, happy relationship with them looks like. As believers, meant to love God and to love our neighbor, we are likewise called to recognize the limitations of our understanding of what is right in this world, its inability to give our lives meaning. We are called to be present with each other and to love each other. This love is not a passive affection or feeling of goodwill but, as Everything Everywhere All at Once shows us, an intentional choice to inhabit the same place(s) as those we love, to make amends where needed, to bear witness, and to offer support and be responsible and responsive to them, even in ways that may not make sense to us. It’s scary and hard, much more so than (merely) doing right by people; it engages us in an ongoing, recursive consideration of other people’s well-being and our own place in the world. But, as the Prodigal Son returns from his erring ways to the arms of the Father, so, in abandoning our misplaced conviction that simply upholding certain obligations or ways of being is enough to give us meaning, and in choosing to love others and know God’s love for us, we find we are coming home.