"Everything, Everywhere, All At Once"
"Everything, Everywhere, All At Once" (EEAAO) won big at the Oscars this Sunday, and I am so happy it did. Needless to say, this movie is iconic, featuring a first-generation immigrant mother as a hero, a fanny pack-wielding husband sidekick, and their queer American-born Chinese daughter. Plus, lots of humans with hot dogs for fingers and googly eyes.
First, let's just pause to appreciate the fact that we got a primarily Asian-American story to not only win Best Picture at the Oscars, but according to IGN, to also become the most awarded film of all time. Also, Michelle Yeoh is the first Asian woman to win Best Actress and the second woman of color since Halle Berry in 2002? Damn.
I think "EEAAO" resonated with a lot of people for a lot of reasons, but for me personally, this movie felt like the closest representation of an Asian family living in America, with the stresses of trying to assimilate but also preserve Asian cultural values, maintaining strained relationships, and also just making ends meet. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly others ("Minari" is fantastic, by the way, and I've heard great things about "The Farewell"), but somehow, "EEAAO" feels different to me. All parts of the family are such essential components of the plot that even though the film is sci-fi, the family dynamic is magnified. The film also highlights generational trauma in a way that reminds me much of "Encanto," though it's not quite as much of a focus in this movie.
"EEAAO," released last March, features Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, a Chinese immigrant mother and wife running a laundromat who constantly feels like she has an overwhelming number of things to do. Evelyn's latest endeavor has been trying to file her taxes before the IRS shuts down her laundromat, but her limited English and happy-go-lucky husband (Waymond Wang, played by Ke Huy Quan) are not helping. She wants more than anything to please her visiting father (played by James Hong), who has never been happy with how she sacrificed everything to come to the U.S. But her daughter (Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu) wants to tell her father about her girlfriend, and Evelyn fears there's no way he'll be able to take it. Also, her husband is contemplating divorcing her. All in the span of one day.
But apparently, throughout the multiverse, a villain named Jobu Topaki is emerging, and no one knows what she'll do with her newfound power. As Evelyn makes her way to the IRS, her husband is taken over by a version of himself from another universe who tells Evelyn that only she has the power to save the multiverse. And to do that, Evelyn must harness the power to become all the other Evelyns in the other universes to defeat groaning tax collectors that are actually Jobu Topaki's followers. Suddenly, Evelyn is everywhere.
Confusing? It should be.
In general, "EEAAO" feels very modern, not only in the characters and premise (an LGBTQ daughter, a villain that's not really a villain, a superhero that's really just an old, tired mom, the whole multiverse theme), but also in the direction. Superhero movies tend to have a very linear storytelling structure, but the sci-fi and multiverse concepts embedded in the movie enable scenes where we're forced to quickly jump between perspectives from one universe to another. The confusion from context-switching mimics Evelyn's constant stress.
In this way, the movie actually celebrates this sort of multitasking mom that has everything in the world to accomplish yet still manages to get it done somehow. It's a nice contrast from films that always seem to try and persuade everyone to relax and take it easy, when sometimes people simply cannot. But it's both a strength and a weakness — as a consequence of her multitasking, Evelyn struggles to make time for the things that are important to her, such as filing her taxes, talking to her husband about their relationship, or talking to her daughter about her girlfriend.
I must also disclose that I am a big fan of Stephanie Hsu, and half of my excitement from this movie stems from her casting. Hsu wasn't very well known in the film industry before EEAAO, as most of her main character roles are from Broadway, starring as Christine Canigula in “Be More Chill” (which was how I came to adore her) and Karen in “The Spongebob Musical.” However, you might be able to spot her in other Asian American roles in movies such as “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I'm so glad she was able to take on this role in the movie — it really allows her to demonstrate her flexibility and range of character. I also love that between her identities in the movie, it all boils down to being a young girl who's still figuring out how the world works and how she fits into it.
The other actors did a fantastic job as well. Michelle Yeoh really gets the overwhelmed Asian mom role down pat. Ku Huy Quan's character is a bit flat, but little of that is due to the actor himself, and Quan portrays the character as he is written well. Jamie Lee Curtis does a wonderful job playing the tax collector, both the horrific version, the regular old lady version, and the sausage fingers version.
However, there are still quite a few things lacking from the plot. One of the most central characters to the story, Waymond, is extremely flat. His entire personality can be boiled down to "generic happy-go-lucky person who believes kindness is the answer to everything, and sometimes suddenly becomes very good at martial arts."
The multiverse itself is confusing too, to both good and bad effect. The multiverse is only briefly introduced in moments of emergency, so it is never fully explained. This manages to obscure some questions that would otherwise be glaringly apparent: Why does it take so long for the villain to reach Evelyn if the villain can be everything, everywhere, all at once? What constitutes identity — does a rock Evelyn or a sausage-finger Evelyn even count as the same Evelyn? And if the villain knows and can become everything in the universe, shouldn't they also know how to achieve inner peace?
In a way, because the movie underexplains these concepts, it leaves the viewer to sort of make up their own answers to their questions. Perhaps explaining the details of how the multiverse works would actually detract from the suspension of disbelief as people work to connect all the details together. Perhaps the absurdity of this sausage-finger-filled multiverse with rock Evelyns and raccoon Ratatouilles leads people to just not question how the multiverse works.
Maybe we just don't need to know. Instead, we can be like Evelyn, resuming her daily life filing tax returns and making more space in her life for her husband, her daughter, and her daughter's girlfriend, all while knowing that somewhere out there, her life might be completely different.