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Sunday, February 25, 2024

'Everything Everywhere All at Once' Perfects Optimistic Nihilism

In 2012, the legendary Twitter account @horse_ebooks tweeted, “Everything happens so much." Despite bordering on nonsense, the message singularly captured the feeling of exhaustion that comes with trying to keep up with the flood of inputs that demand attention every day. It is in this place of chaotic resignation that Everything Everywhere All at Once steps in to offer clarity.

Everything Everywhere, the latest from the directing duo known as Daniels (Swiss Army Man), centers on Evelyn (played in dozens of incarnations by Michelle Yeoh), a woman who's just trying to file her taxes to keep the laundromat she owns with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), running. Her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), wants to bring her girlfriend to the birthday party for Evelyn's elderly father (James Hong), who's old-fashioned and won't approve of their relationship. All the while, Waymond is struggling to find the space to tell Evelyn that he wants a divorce. It's frenetically told but also unfolds like a perfectly relatable story about the chaos of life and the feeling of being pulled in a thousand directions at once. And then the multiverse opens up.

Stories about multiverses are myriad in popular culture. For proof, one need look no further than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Ironically, Daniels—Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—turned down the opportunity to work on Loki, which dealt heavily in multiversal possibilities.) But rarely are they explored as in-depth and meaningfully as they are in Everything Everywhere. Evelyn's foray into her multiverse gives her perspective, a chance to reconcile her boring job, whiny husband, and troublesome daughter with versions of her life in which she's a hibachi chef, movie star, and—in a twist—a literal rock. Equal parts soul-searching and sci-fi, Kwan and Scheinert's movie takes all of this to its emotional and logical extremes. But instead of arriving at some nihilistic conclusion, it poses a more optimistic question: If there are no rules, no consequences, then why not go wild?

Absurdity courses through every scene. Navigation of the multiverse involves performing silly, random actions like eating lip balm or accepting an award, and each time Evelyn or a member of her family makes a decision, another timeline branches off. The point is that seemingly small or inconsequential decisions can lead to radically different outcomes. Throughout Everything Everywhere, characters perform ridiculous actions in order to gain new abilities, but in the end it's the minuscule and unlikely ones that ultimately change the course of the party Evelyn throws for her father. 

At the onset, it's easy to see why Evelyn is frustrated with her job, her husband, her daughter. But after seeing the many ways their lives could have unfolded, the countless possibilities of who they could have become, a deeper truth emerges. If nothing matters, then the only thing that can matter is what you choose. The multiverse might contain an infinite amount of pain and heartbreak, but it also contains an infinite amount of creativity, passion, beauty, and connection. 

Through that lens, cynicism itself gets distilled down to just another choice. It's not naive or ignorant to choose to value little moments, small acts of kindness. In a world where so much can feel insignificant, choosing cruelty or hopelessness has no greater value than opting for kindness and empathy. If anything, choosing destruction only accelerates entropy.

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Everything Everywhere doesn't just reject cynicism, it refutes it. And that might be its most defining value. The film takes the concept of an infinite multiverse—and by extension, the vast, overwhelming nature of our own experiences—and examines it both critically and compassionately. It, quite literally at times, stares into the void and doesn't blink as the void stares back.

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