The Emotional Surplus of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

Everything Everywhere All at Once dominated the 2022-23 awards calendar, culminating with its 11 nominations and seven wins at the 95th Academy Awards. Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert won for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and – with fellow producer Jonathan Wang – Best Picture. Michelle Yeoh won Best Actress. Ke Huy Quan won Best Supporting Actor. Jamie Lee Curtis took home Best Supporting Actress. Editor Paul Rogers also won an Oscar. The film is, by at least one metric, the most successful in the history of the Oscars.

That EEAAO would earn near-unanimous praise was hardly a foregone conclusion upon its release. The film’s pastiche is only part of what makes it unlike anything mainstream cinema has seen before, full of references high and low from a wide swath of contemporary culture: Wong Kar-wai, Ratatouille, kung fu, and pro wrestling, to name only a few. It starts off as a drama about a Chinese immigrant family’s version of life being just too much sometimes. And “by too much,” I mean the mundane things: making a living, getting along with family members, and suffering through paperwork at the most inopportune time.

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Stephanie Hsu as Joy Wang, Ke Huy Quan as Waymond Wang, Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, and James Hong as Gong Gong in Everything Everywhere All at Once (COURTESY: A24)

On another level is the existential threat lingering beneath literally everything. The world today called for this story and the Daniels answered (with giddy pleasure, I imagine). Silly as it is at times, EEAAO is nonetheless a serious film. Conflict is what gives the film its general structure (good-versus-evil is, after all, its most traditional element), but it’s powered by a nonsensical, disorienting creative free-flow, and it derives order from confounding expectations. We’re confused as we get our bearings. Though this can be exhausting, it’s also an exhilarating exhaustion, one with the potential to reground us in the real world. We walk away from the theater (or the living room) and get our bearings – but the film lingers.

The result is best described through affect, a concept expounded upon by philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi in his translator’s forward to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980/1987). Per Massumi, affect is not emotion or feeling per se; it’s an intensity before language. And while affect can challenge that which is foundational to meaning, it can also do the opposite and more.

The surplus of EEAAO results, ultimately, in a surplus of affect. In contexts other than popular cinema, this notion can be applied to cases of trauma. EEAAO, though, uses affect to amplify its message. The film does this in two ways: one is by addressing the audience, and, in doing so, implicating it; the other is providing the direction and destination of its affect via narrative arc.

The story begins with Evelyn handling everything in her life at once: her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), wants to speak to her; she tends to her father, Gong Gong (James Hong); her laundromat has needy customers; she’s planning a big party for Chinese New Year. Evelyn is too busy to realize that her husband, Waymond (Quan), is trying to hand her divorce papers (and far, far too preoccupied to realize that the papers are likely just a ploy to get her attention). And Evelyn’s most pressing, unavoidable task is an IRS audit. She and Waymond take Gong Gong to their meeting with their auditor, Deirdre (Curtis), who has put a lien on the laundromat.

In the elevator at the IRS building – the first quiet moment in the film – a version of Waymond from a different universe appears in this-universe Waymond’s body and Evelyn strange instructions. Nothing makes sense, including the headset he puts on her. When Evelyn finally does as she’s been instructed, she finds herself pulled into another realm – actually a burner universe, which, as we soon learn, is used for inter-universe communication. Waymond explains that Evelyn is in danger and implores her to help defend the multiverse against a great evil. A confused and startled Evelyn responds in stereotyped Chinese-immigrant English, “Very busy today. No time to help you.”

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Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once (COURTESY: A24)

Multiverse Waymond explains that every decision we make in life, no matter how small, adds up to significant differences over a lifetime. Every decision creates another branching universe, yet another version of your life in the grand multiverse. The version of Evelyn with limitless potential is the one the multiverse needs to save existence from Jobu Tupaki (also played by Hsu), “an omniversal being with unimaginable power.” While Evelyn takes this all in, all the rules of “‘verse jumping” and balancing multiverse realities random rules, she and Multiverse Waymond are pursued by a Multiverse Deirdre, a Jobu acolyte intent on destroying them.

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Stephanie Hsu as Jobu Tupaki in Everything Everywhere All at Once (COURTESY: A24)

The cosmologies of the various universes are just as bizarre. In the most widely parodied universe, everyone has hotdogs instead of fingers, Evelyn and Deirdre are lovers who collect cat portraits and play the piano with their feet, and the lovers in a Bollywood film put condiments on each other’s fingers and suck them. In a dramatic moment evocative of Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see that the hot dog finger universe is where people evolved from apes who also had hotdogs for fingers.

Within the plenitude that is EEAAO‘s emotional surplus are endless existential queries and dilemmas. They help shape one’s experience of this film. The big question involves Jobu’s Everything Bagel, a spinning black hole of death that to Jobu is simple purpose. When Evelyn asks, “What is the truth?” Jobu answers, “Nothing matters.” For her, existence is the nothing of Nihilism. She adds, “Feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel from making nothing of your life goes away.”

There’s also a rock universe for contemplating life and the nature of being. Here, Evelyn and Jobu are rocks on the edge of an abyss. They communicate in silence and the film reverts to subtitles for an explanation of the vastness of it all. There are “trillions of suns”; there are who knows how many universes. One rock tells the other, “For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the center of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise….Every new discovery is just a reminder. We’re all small & stupid….I’ve been trapped like this for so long – experiencing everything.”

Everything laces such commentary throughout the rest of its multiverse exploration. Some of the film’s most compelling moments come when it speaks to its audience come in the form of advice or imperatives. The Waymond in the film’s Wong Kar-wai universe tells Evelyn, “When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naïve. It’s strategic and necessary.” Another version of Waymond implores both within the film and without: “The only thing that I do know is that we have to be kind. Please. Be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.”

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Ke Huy Quan as Waymond (Wong Kar-wai) in Everything Everywhere All at Once (COURTESY: A24)

The rock scenes, though, serve as a repository. Slow and silent except for the soft sound of wind, they rely on camera angles and close-ups atypical of the rest of the film for their animation. And when the actors are replaced with rocks, the emoting comes from the audience. The ultimate destination for affect, the surplus of which divines release, is the return of the family drama in EEAAO‘s penultimate scenes. Here, what matters most are things that are very basic when compared with the collapse of all existence: love and family. The larger narrative of Evelyn versus Jobu Tupaki runs alongside and often gets tangled up with the family drama, which keeps spousal and filial love at its center. After a momentary lapse, Evelyn resists Jobu’s nothingness and sees her life with Waymond in flashbacks. She recognizes the love that was there all along and hugs her husband. After this, Evelyn’s mission to defeat Jobu is motivated by love for her daughter.

This motivation makes Evelyn so powerful that she attracts the attention of counterparts from the Alpha-Universe, the first universe to make contact with others. When they riddle her with bullets, she simply turns them into plastic googly eyes. Evelyn places one on her forehead like it’s the mind’s eye as imagined by Taoist thought, then shoots the rest back at her assailants. It’s a nod to Waymond, who saw the world with kinder eyes. Behind all the flash and fighting is Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s message, quite possibly just this: Love is a real force in the universe.

Before the Academy Awards, the film’s distributor, A24, auctioned off mementos from the film, raising over half a million dollars for the Asian Mental Health Project, the Laundry Workers Center, and the Transgender Law Center. The auction reminds us that the medium of film can have a tangible effect on people’s lives. Harrison Ford said as much in less tangible terms when he announced the 10 nominees for Best Picture: “Movies can transform our lives. The movies we honor tonight have real power.” It’s a clichéd statement – but so is the genre of love stories. And there’s still truth in it. The Daniels understand the power of such truth and the instrumentality of affect. It’s for this reason that their film will far outlast its Oscar moment.

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