The Multiverse Is for the Middle-Aged
Nina Shen Rastogi reviews Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
Hello dear readers!
We’re so pleased to share this review by Nina Shen Rastogi of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. We saw the movie a couple of weeks ago and it has stayed with us since. Nina brilliantly explains why the movie is so compelling. We’re so grateful to her for writing this piece!
If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you might recall Nina’s six seasons of recaps for Vulture, which sustained us through the run. We particularly loved her close read of the finale. She has also written a fascinating piece on casting notices and race, which she describes casting as an “imaginative process that’s shaped by the preconceptions and personal experiences of everyone involved: producers, agents, and indeed the actors themselves.”
If you saw the movie and want to share any reactions, don’t hesitate to write us. You can reply to this email or write in the comments section.
And as if it weren’t clear, SPOILER ALERT!
The Multiverse Is for the Middle-Aged
The opening shot of Everything Everywhere All at Once seems like it’s been spliced in from the wrong movie. Everything Everywhere is a gonzo, maximalist action-adventure-comedy-drama that follows everywoman Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) across a rapidly proliferating series of absurd universes. In one, she’s a glamorous movie star; in one, she has hot dogs for fingers; in one, she’s a tenderly maternal boulder.
It’s a candy-colored and, at times, frenetic trip. And yet the first image we see is a simple one: a small mirror, propped up on an overstuffed bookshelf. Framed inside, a family. We will come to know them as Evelyn; her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan); and her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). These three will spend a lot of the movie talking past each other, but at this moment we can’t hear any of them. We just watch them happily singing karaoke in silent slow motion.
Soon, though, we’ll see all the ways this family doesn’t harmonize, with the perpetually harried, distractible Evelyn at the center. Joy wants her mother to stop and acknowledge the seriousness of Joy’s relationship with her girlfriend, Becky, while Waymond—well, Waymond just wants his wife to acknowledge that he exists. The situation has become dire enough that he’s prepared divorce papers, just to get his wife to focus on him for a minute.
So far, so domestic. But the film gets a lot weirder from there. It turns out the Wangs are living in one little branch of the multiverse, a sprawling, networked set of parallel realities. In another, more happening spot known as the Alphaverse, they’ve learned how to jump between worlds, which is a neat trick except it’s inadvertently unleashed chaos on all known planes of human existence. Evelyn woke up prepared to face a looming tax audit, a Chinese New Year party, and her crotchety nonagenarian father (James Hong), but now the Alphaverse’s version of Waymond comes to tell her she must face down the villain Jobu Topaki—who just happens to be the Alphaverse’s version of Joy.
It’s a classic Chosen One tale, except the heroine is a middle-aged Chinese mom.
The way this all plays out is silly and fun, and if you’re into quantum physics and string theory I imagine it’s even more enjoyable. But everything you need to know about the film’s emotional register is in that humble opening shot, the camera looking at the mirror looking at this family. Because Everything Everywhere is a story about seeing: how we do and do not see each other, and how we do and do not see ourselves.
Early in the film, we linger on moments of looking. Evelyn pauses as she runs around the family laundromat, her gaze caught by a musical playing on one of the TVs. In the scene, a man in European military attire and a South Asian woman in traditional dress circle each other as they sing a King and I-style love duet. Evelyn’s face blooms with delight in this rare instance where her body is still. At the IRS office, as the family rushes to the dreaded audit appointment, Waymond gets distracted by an elderly Asian couple being gently solicitous to one another. His yearning mirrors Evelyn’s rapture in the laundromat: each is snatching a glimpse of their heart’s desire. The painful thing, of course, is that Waymond’s vision requires Evelyn, while he’s not afforded the same courtesy. Evelyn’s vision of the good life, in fact, requires her husband’s absence.
“I saw my life without you,” Evelyn says as she jumps back from the universe in which she’s a movie star. “I wish you could have seen it. It was beautiful.”
The hero’s journey may take Evelyn all over the multiverse—even as her body stays mainly in the IRS office and the family apartment—but her real transformation is one of vision, perception, and attention. By the end of the film, she learns to see Waymond and his kindness, to recognize Becky, to behold and focus on the aptly named Joy.
One of the movie’s signature motifs is the googly eye, which Waymond likes to stick on sacks of pound laundry. But peepholes and portals repeat constantly, from Jobu Tapaki’s everything bagel, which visually and metaphorically inverts Waymond’s googly eye, to the gateway that threatens to suck Jobu and Evelyn into oblivion at the film’s climax. When Jobu/Joy wants to show her nemesis/mother the metastasizing universe as she sees it, she makes a little opening with her fingers, letting Evelyn peer through to see their alternate lives as kung fu opponents, as piñatas, as rocks in a barren wasteland.
The vastness of what Jobu can perceive renders everything within that field of vision meaningless, and it makes her lonely. “I wasn’t looking for you so I could kill you,” she tells Evelyn. “I was just looking for someone who could see what I see, feel what I feel.” Evelyn, on the other hand, is enriched by seeing so many different versions of herself—not just, it seems to me, because she gains their powers and skills, but also because it gives her a more expansive view of her existence. It heals her to see the multitudes this shape called “Evelyn” might contain. And as that feeling radiates outward, she begins to see what else is good around her. When, in the climactic final battle, Evelyn picks up one of Waymond’s googly eyes and taps it to her forehead, she doesn’t just open up her third eye and its mystical gates of perception. She begins to see like Waymond: to discern the kind path, the small happiness.
Everything Everywhere apparently began with a larky idea by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the writer-directors who collectively go by Daniels: what if their moms got stuck in the Matrix? The Matrix, of course, is a film all about learning to see—how to see the world as it truly is.
Just like Keanu, Evelyn gets her own “I know kung fu” moment, and it takes place in a stairwell as she squares off against a murderously possessed IRS agent, Deirdre Beaubierdra (Jamie Lee Curtis). By verse-jumping, Evelyn downloads masterful martial-arts skills, and as the scene plays out only half the thrills are in the kicking and punching. The other half plays across Evelyn’s face, as she stares in wonder at her own newly miraculous hands.
We, of course, are used to the glory of Michelle Yeoh’s flying fists. But watching her witness them too adds a richness and sweetness to the scene. No shade whatsoever to Michelle Yeoh, but I loved how weathered her hands looked. These are hands that have already seen some things.
There’s a clip of Yeoh getting teary-eyed talking about the role, saying, “This is something I’ve been waiting for, for a long time. That’s going to give me the opportunity to show my fans, my family, my audience, what I’m capable of. To be funny, to be real, to be sad.”
And Daniels couldn’t have scripted a better scene partner for her than Ke Huy Quan. After starring as a kid in ’80s classics like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Goonies, Quan didn’t have a lot of opportunities, as an Asian man, to stay on screen. So he began working behind the camera, as an assistant director and fight choreographer. It wasn’t until the success of Crazy Rich Asians (starring a more typically cool and collected Yeoh) that he began to explore acting again. “When those opportunities dried up, I spent a long time trying to convince myself that I didn’t like acting anymore,” he told Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “I didn’t want to step away with the feeling that it was because there were no opportunities. I was lying to myself.”
Quan’s distinctive voice has mellowed in recent decades, but it’s still fundamentally Short Round’s sweet honk. Watching Yeoh be vulnerable and messy, and Quan—well, watching Quan be on the big screen at all, but especially in a role that lets him be so debonair and so dexterous—caught me off guard. I’ve been tracking how Asians show up in American film and television for a long time now. So when I watch Everything Everywhere, I bring to it decades of passionate viewership. I bring my histories with these specific actors. I bring my newly middle-aged self, who feels a thwack to the heart as she watches everyday older folks be granted the fullness not only of their lives, but of the entire multiverse.
In another universe, I have written the perfect version of this essay.
In the Writerverse, perhaps, Writer-Nina kept writing consistently through her thirties and into her forties, so the blank page triggers just a normal amount of panic for her. She feels only the standard level of fear that she’ll never be able to fill it again. She doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, because she knows she’ll write another thing next week, and another the week after that, and probably another the week after that. Maybe she’s written a whole goddamn book! Maybe she’s written LOTS of books!
I imagine Writer-Nina, her office bookshelves twice as high as mine, her tote bags crisper and more au courant. She wears more interesting clothes than I do and spends more time in Brooklyn. Her twentieth college reunion is about to happen in the Writerverse too, but the alumni committee reached out to her and asked her to give a talk, and since she’s back on campus anyhow, teaching a highly coveted seminar, she says sure, why not, I think I can squeeze that in.
I think of this alternate version of me as I grocery shop and make spreadsheets for my mortgage payments. In the universe I inhabit now, my cellular dice came up snake eyes and I’ve been in and out of hospitals for the last two years. So I think of her, too, as I count out my little piles of pills every evening. I think about all the forking paths that carried me away from her.
Of course, she’s a fantasy—even if I’d stayed on that career path, it’s not as if I’d be guaranteed a glamorous literary life. At forty-two, though, I’m conscious of how many doors I’ve closed that could have led me to her, just as I’ve closed doors that could have led me to Actress-Nina, whom I dreamed of as a child, or to Living-Abroad-Nina, who always seemed like someone I could theoretically be if I wanted, but who seems a lot more improbable at forty-two than she was at twenty-two.
Bùyào jǐnzhāng, Waymond says to Evelyn as she’s working up a head of steam. Don’t worry.
As the moderately anxious daughter of a Chinese mother, I heard this sentence a lot growing up. As the middle-aged moderately anxious daughter of a Chinese mother, I hear it even more because, well, I have more to worry about these days. In a decade or so of therapy, I’ve learned a lot of methods to regulate myself when I’m feeling scared, and I’ve learned that the quickest way to stop myself from going into a tailspin is to zoom out. I breathe and do a blue sky meditation, imagining my mind as wide and spacious as the heavens, orders of magnitude bigger than the cramped, sweaty thoughts and feelings swarming me at that moment. Or I think to myself, in a hundred years, everyone whose opinions I’m worried about will be dead!
Evelyn’s expansive vision of her multiversal realities threatens to break her at first. Her glamorous alternate lives make her “real” one seem common, small, and disappointing. Like Jobu, the more she sees, the more her existence seems random and meaningless—but instead of that being a source of despair, it ultimately seems to free her. She doesn’t have to worry about all the ways her life could have turned out, because somewhere out there, they did turn out in all those ways, and a million others besides. Don’t worry, these other Evelyns say to her. You have our permission to focus on whatever common, small, beautiful things are in front of you right now.
“Here, all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes sense,” Joy says to her mother as they reconcile at the end of the film. “Then I will cherish these few specks of time,” Evelyn responds.
When the passage of time hurts, the multiverse gives me another wide-angle view of myself. I imagine myself as one little node on Alpha-Waymond’s multiverse map, getting up and brushing my teeth every day, while somewhere out there there’s a me that’s won an Oscar and a me that’s gone to the moon. A me that lives in Sheboygan. A me that never grew up. If existence isn’t linear but a constellation of branching filaments, I don’t need to experience everything right here all at once. I can focus on the specks that matter to me where I am, while other versions of me focus on all the rest.
“The universe is so much bigger than you realize," Alpha-Waymond says to Evelyn. Maybe I am as well.
Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and designer living in Oakland, California.
Our Chinese-newsletter published the second part of Nicholas Haggerty’s fantastic essay on Chen Shui-bian, translated by Bryan Chou.
Also, we’re moving book club dates to Thursdays rather than Fridays for the summer. We’ll talk about Siobhan Phillips’s novel on Thursday, May 26 at 6 PM EST and Lisa Chen’s book on Thursday, June 30 at 5 PM EST. Looking forward! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for the zoom link.