The first time someone raved to me about seeing Everything Everywhere All at Once, I thought they were actually suggesting I see everything everywhere all at once, and I was briefly excited by the implication that this exhilarating possibility was somehow on the table.

After that disappointment I heard about it several times more, and warmed to the idea of seeing the movie anyway, especially on account of it being the most roundly recommended one I remember. The third time someone invited me to see it with them, I went.

And it seemed so astonishingly lacking to both of us that I left severely confused, and remain so. Like: I know people have different tastes. I know that I’m not the biggest movie appreciator (my ideal movie probably has a small number of visually distinct characters and nobody dies or does anything confusing, and I’ve already seen it twice). But usually I have some abstract guess about what other people are liking. Or, more realistically, a name for the category of mysterious attraction (“ah yes, you are into the ‘action’, and that means it’s good when helicopters crash or people shoot each other”). Yet here, I’m grasping even for that. “You like it because.. it has much more prolonged fighting than usual and you like fighting?…or…it is some kind of irony thing about other movies?” I could believe that it was some kind of mediocre action movie. But usually my friends don’t go crazy for mediocre action movies. And here for instance one of my best friends, who I generally take to have subtle and sensitive and agreeable tastes, and who knows me extremely well, told me in particular to see it. And the strongest criticism I have seen of it outside of our post-movie discussion is another friend’s apparently sincere complaint on Facebook that it is probably only among the top hundred movies ever, not the top ten like people say. And it’s not that I just wasn’t wowed by it: it’s hard to remember the last time I was less compelled by a movie. (Though perhaps one doesn’t remember such things.) Like, I was really sitting there in the cinema thinking something along the lines of, ‘movies usually grab my attention somehow, yet this is doing some special thing differently to not have that happen? Huh?’

I don’t know if I can spoil this movie, because whatever was good in it, I totally missed. But here I attempt spoilers. This is what happens in the movie, as far as I can tell:

(Ok my companion and I actually failed to notice when it started, so maybe there was something important there. Oops.)

A woman and her family run a laundromat, and are also working on their taxes. Her life is disappointing to her. A version of her husband appears from a different dimension and relays some kind of dimly coherent plot involving lots of dimensions and the need for her to jump between them and fight or something. Then they fight and jump between dimensions for about two hours. Their fighting involves some repeating motifs: 1) There is a humorous conceit that in order to jump between dimensions you have to do a strange action, for instance bite off and chew some lip balm. This joke is repeated throughout most of the fighting. One time the traveler has to put an object up their bottom, so that is pretty exciting humorwise. 2) Things often look cool. Like, there are lots of evocative objects and people are wearing make-up and neat costumes. 3) There is lots of jumping between dimensions. At some point it becomes clear that a baddie is actually the woman’s daughter, who has turned to nihilism as a result of either seeing everything all at once and that being kind of intrinsically nihilism-provoking due to its lack of permitting anything else, or as a result of having her lesbianism disrespected by her mother earlier. The fighting takes on a more nihilism vs. appreciating life flavor, and then it turns out that being friendly and warm is good, as represented by the father, and now appreciated by the mother. Then…actually I forget what happens at the end, sorry.

I’m all for ‘nihilism vs. something something existential something something, life, kindness’ as a theme, but this seemed like such a shallow treatment of it. It just seemed like a bunch of fighting labeled ‘deep plot about nihilism etc’, and I don’t think caused me to have any interesting thoughts about such themes, except perhaps by reminding me of the general topic and leaving me without anything to distract my mind from wandering.

It was clearly too violent for my liking, so that’s idiosyncratic, but it’s not like I’m always opposed to violence—some of the fighting in Lord of the Rings was quite moving, and I watched the whole of Game of Thrones in spite of also at other times using scenes from it in exposure therapy. But I posit that you need some sort of meaningful context to make violence interesting or moving, and I don’t think I caught that.

I also speculate that some humor is meant to come from the protagonist being a middle aged immigrant Chinese woman, instead of the more standard young man. Which seems rude: as though it is asking for the props generally offered for featuring atypical demographics in films, yet is doing so as a joke.

In sum, it seemed to me to be a bunch of fairly meaningless fighting interspersed with repetitive lowbrow humor and aesthetically pleasing props.

I asked a couple of my friends to explain their alternate takes to me, but I don’t think I can do their explanations justice, due to not really understanding them. At a high level they disagreed with me about things like ‘was it extremely humorous?’ and ‘was it unusually engaging vs. unusually unengaging?’, but I didn’t understand why, at a lower level. Probably we all agree that it was visually cool, but I wasn’t actually stunned by that. Maybe visual attractiveness alone counts for less with me (though I recently saw Everything is Illuminated, which I found awesome in a confusingly soul-electrifying way and whose merit seems somehow related to visualness). One interesting thing that this discussion with EEAAO appreciators added was the point that there is something moving about the thought that in a different dimension you and the odious tax lady might be tender lovers. I agree that that’s a nice thought.

I am hesitant to criticize here, because it is sweet of my friends to try to give me a nice movie recommendation, and I appreciate it. Also, I think in general that if Alice loves a thing and Bob doesn’t, it is much more likely that Bob is missing something wonderful than that Alice is imagining such a thing. (Though conversely if they agree that the thing is pretty good in ways, and Bob just hates it because it also has some overriding problem, then my guess would be the reverse: probably Alice is missing a thing.)

So probably, somehow, other people are right. Please other people, help enlighten me more? (And thanks to some of my friends for trying!)

29

9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:59 PM
New Comment

Agree that the treatment of nihilism is shallow, but it didn't matter to me because it wasn't the heart of the movie at all. The heart is, hmm, being a failure? Letting your relationships decay because you're neglecting them, because you don't have a "show up for my people" attitude about them (maybe because on some level you expect both yourself and them to be better, but you aren't, and this is discouraging)... letting (career, family, time management) problems build up that you dismiss as chronic irritations rather than the defining, central challenges that you have to tackle... and then managing, somehow, to change, to choose love, to choose commitment to your own life.

(stares at that paragraph) Okay, yes. That's it for me. This movie is good because it shows a wreck of a person choosing to commit to their own life. I don't commit enough to my own life, my friends don't commit to their own lives, and it's very potent to watch someone turn around on this! It turns me a bit in the same direction.

I cannot ask for more from art.

Found the movie hilarious and it never crossed my mind that the protagonist being a middle aged immigrant was part of what made it funny, btw.

Found the movie hilarious and it never crossed my mind that the protagonist being a middle aged immigrant was part of what made it funny, btw.

 

Yes, I agree here, and I wonder how OP ended up with this impression. Her being a middle-aged immigrant is important to the family story the movie is telling because her relationships with her dad, husband, and daughter, and who each of them is, are all affected by this fact and by the protagonist's experiences and choices. Those relationships both drive the plot and form the emotional core of the movie.

I think if you just view this movie thru the lens of one genre, it's going to seem lacking because, what genre is this movie? It's everything, everywhere, all at once.

Okay, a lot of this commentary hit "sideways." Let me see if I can unpack some of this.

0

A lot of what's missing is meditation.

TL;DR: It's a meditation metaphor movie, with some heavily Eastern themes and symbology.

I'm about 99% sure that at its thematic core, it's an "enlightenment/meditation metaphor" movie. I thought it does a really good job at being that, but that part is understandably not going to hit with everyone.

Did you notice that the damn circle has at least 3 different meanings or references, which all tie in neatly with each other? One of the major ones, that I think some people are likely to miss, is Ensō.

Ensō has a pile of deep associations and meanings in Zen, many of which they also touch on in other places in the movie. I thought they unpacked that symbol pretty masterfully, and that was pretty central to my enjoyment and understanding of the movie. However, it is something I expect a lot of western audiences to miss completely.

(I have not found a good extensive commentary to link, that unpacks this to my satisfaction. But this guy on twitter seems to get it.)

...on the art level, it also struck me as pretty chaotic. It's a flashy fighting movie, a family comedy, some cringe humor, a bit of an art movie... put it down for "a little of everything," really?

If I'd missed the theme, or God Forbid, if I had mostly tried to assess its merits in terms of how often she's making sensible or strategic goal-directed moves? The movie probably would have landed more as loud silly nonsense.

Some people like loud silly nonsense! I don't think I would have found just the loud silly nonsense all that compelling, though.

This one came with a really strong core theme, that I do think you missed or misunderstood.

1

Everything Else.

"The violence is pointless": The violence being pointless, is actually part of the point. While it's used to generate some initial attention and interest (...in people who find that interesting for some reason), the violence is also deliberately pointless, and the protagonist is supposed to slowly realize this and grow out of it.

(...however, the movie did handle grief with less maturity than a 5-year-old, basically by just ignoring it. I have no idea why! Maybe they really didn't want to slow the movie down? Bleh, even that reason doesn't feel entirely compelling to me, and it did undercut the movie for me a bit.)

"Weirdly NON-attention-getting": I'm pretty sure that the late stages of the movie are actively trying to be held in broad/diffuse attention, not single-point laser-attention. I think so, anyway?

This is kinda part of its whole deal as a "meditation metaphor" movie. Also ties in with its commentary on "looking around, even when what's immediately in front of you seems extremely urgent," as echoed in stuff like looking up from the circled receipt.

If that diffuse state-of-mind is uncomfortable or somnolent for you? You are not alone in that! It's a pretty common sentiment, actually. There are a whole lot of people who complain about finding parts of meditation uncomfortable or sleep-inducing, especially when it gets to the "broad/diffuse attention" step.

(...although this doesn't necessarily rule out that you found the movie boring for unintended reasons, though! To which, shrug it's cool if you didn't like it.)

(I suspect I am the FB friend, and I note that I've since updated to "probably top 1000 and maybe top 100".)

I think the reason I am even that effusive (versus the common trend in this subculture of being REALLY EFFUSIVE omg best movie evar) is that I am particularly enamored of stories which do two things:

  • A simple premise, executed well
  • A simple premise, fully committed to, with no self-consciousness or holding back

(Examples include The Terminator, Pitch Black, Memento, all but the last twenty minutes of Sunshine, and My Dinner With Andre)

I liked EEAOO not because it was mind-blowing or complex or surprising (imo it was none of those things) but rather because it felt like ... like looking at the train set of an autistic child whose special interest is trains?

I liked the joy and enthusiasm with which it was crafted, which seemed to me to shine through and imbue each moment with a sort of affectionate glow.  Similar maybe to Axe Cop, which I predict you would find similarly lacking-anything-pointable-at in terms of quality or point.

I think it was ... charming, in the way that people might refer to a cottage as charming.  I felt infected by infectious enthusiasm, wanting to go along for the ride because of how much the person who'd grabbed my hand was enjoying it.

"What are we doing toda—oh, okay, we're doing this? ...oh, we're REALLY doing this, gotcha." *grin*

Does that help at all?

My impression is that this movie is to older teenagers/early 20-somethings what The Matrix/The Big Lebowski/Fight Club were to me and my age group: grappling with nihilism by taking a long, hard look at all the completely arbitrary social hierarchies that our society is composed of. All of these movies highlight how flimsy social customs are. All of them also give voice to a certain kind of deep anger with the status quo through the violence they portray.

It was a solid movie, though I wouldn't place it in the top 100. I enjoyed it for giving me a window into the thoughts of a group of people I don't normally get to talk with. 

I would guess for many people it resonates with high dose psychedelic experiences.

I have found throughout my life that there is virtually no correlation between what media other people like (friends, critics, etc) and what I like. Not even a negative correlation; just none. I have given up trying to understand this particular phenomenon.

I'm coming back to this thread having just seen the movie and really enjoyed it. femtogrammar's remarks about the emotional core of the movie partially resonate with me, in that there's a strong thread of making the active choice to live one's life as opposed to being swept along in it. I would elaborate that I think this is a movie about gaining perspective in the face of struggle. I also think the sci-fi action elements are quite effective in communicating this theme as well as being very technically well executed.

Basically, each act of the movie shows Evelyn in a different stage of awareness. When we meet her, she feels trapped and powerless in her life, unable to see past the framework she has constructed for herself of needing to please her father and manage her husband and daughter. The second act begins the sci-fi chicanery, showing her that she can be more than what she is if she can only break out of the mindset she is trapped in (do something you would never think to do, and you can become a different person, one who would think to do that!). With this she is able to begin exerting actual agency in her life; fighting back against people who are trying to control her.

Unfortunately the insight is incomplete, and as we move into act three, Joy confronts Evelyn with nihilism, and despite having gained agency, Evelyn still lacks purpose. She is defeated and "dies" across the multiverse to variously literal degrees. However her husband is able to help her find a breakthrough; in his own way he has created meaning for himself in kindness and she learns to follow his example. The action changes at this point and Evelyn defeats the grunts by helping them self-actualize as well so they no longer have reason to fight her instead of overpowering them. Finally, she is able to save Joy (the name is very apropos) by acknowledging that life will always contain struggle, but love makes it worthwhile to hold on.

So the thesis here isn't anything revolutionary, really. It's standard existentialist stuff. The reason I think it works so well for me and many other watchers is that the makers of this movie clearly intimately understand the emotional grammar of film. The constant cuts from one universe to another would make the movie totally unwatchable except that each one is carefully juxtaposed to be emotionally contiguous. The performances show a similar level of mastery, with facial expressions and body language being carefully translated from one shot to the next. Thanks to this care for continuity, even when the action scenes aren't obviously advancing the purely mechanical elements of the plot, they are still generally contributing to the emotional arc of the film by creating tension and giving Evelyn an obstacle to struggle against and gain self-knowledge in the process.

Visual elements are carefully incorporated as well. One example I liked is the karaoke machine receipt. It's established early and repeatedly appears in the frame. It has a heavy black circle on it which clearly echoes The Bagel, but it's not empty. At the center is the karaoke machine, which in my reading is a symbol of love. The very first shot of the film shows the family singing karaoke together and sharing a moment of happiness and love, reflected in the circular black mirror. We are introduced to the conflict when this vision snaps away and the mirror shows an empty table covered in receipts; a literal loss of perspective. This is just one motif but I think it shows the level of attention given to making each frame count; we get a symbolic representation of both the conflict and the resolution within second of starting the movie.

I've let this comment get much too long and I suspect you won't be swayed too much. Hopefully I've at least killed some of the mystery in my rambling. I liked the movie because it has a very clear emotional heart and uses a lot of technical prowess to deliver on that heart.

For me it started off promising because it seemed like it was taking the multiverse "seriously" (in some sense; not in the sense of making logical or physical sense, not in the sense of being non-humorous, but in the sense of the multiverse being Real for the characters). I thought it was poetically pregnant how the older woman was powerful because of all her unfollowed dreams. 

The nihilism could hypothetically have been interesting, and could have worked with the trauma or whatever, but IMO it didn't end up coherent / archetypally real / resonant. (I also thought the movie was very flawed in other ways that significantly detracted from it for me, e.g. most of the humor fell flat to me and the structure became very repetitive, like they made a spreadsheet of 4 alternate universes, 4 plot points, and then filled out every combination of alt + situation.)