The Everything Everywhere All at Once sweep at the Oscars shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been familiar with the race for the past six or so months. It’s been in the driver’s seat the whole time, and the ceremony proved to be the coronation that most expected, with few other films finding their place on the stage. Sweeping every above-the-line category in which it was nominated, the film has now entered Oscar history as one of the most decorated films ever at the Academy Awards. Such an honor couldn’t have happened to a stranger film, representing at once one of the first genre exercises recognized, an absurdist comedy with a distinctly contemporary sense of humor, and a film with a diverse cast about the Asian-American experience. It’s been quickly canonized and attributed classic status, but how good really is it?
The opening sequence to Everything Everywhere is spectacular, easily the best in the entire film. The camera glides through a laundromat, owned and operated by Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan’s characters, constantly refocusing, shifting plots and pushing both the characters and the audience into a further sense of anxiety. It is ironic and likely purposeful that this scene, the one which most takes place in “reality,” ends up being the most profound representation of the film’s title. In that scene is the promise of an incredibly inventive family story, one which ultimately gets bogged down in its own higher aspirations and penchant for silliness. Still, it is in the overwhelming sequence that the lasting qualities of the film emerge: Ke Huy Quan, Yeoh and newcomer Stephanie Hsu are all indisputable, incredibly empathetic, and prove to be formidable screen presences. No one can deny their representation at the Oscars (particularly Yeoh, who has been one of the most talented martial artists in film for decades now).
Everything Everywhere wears its fairly popular influences on its sleeves. The plot structure and general form is right out of The Matrix. Pixar, too, finds itself the subject of a major joke, but also present in every piece of the film’s bright-eyed vision. Martial Arts sequences can perhaps best be compared to Jackie Chan’s action-comedy style, but there is at least one (fairly funny) Shaw Brothers reference which suggests a deeper interest in the genre. And of course, the most famous sequence in the film takes place in a universe which approximates Wong Kar Wai’s signature neon metropolis, step-printing melancholic style. There isn’t any particular problem with this; I can’t say that I’m upset when Brian de Palma pulls entire sequences from Hitchcock’s oeuvre in his films, or when Tarantino riffs on his favorite films that no one’s ever heard of or likes. Still, something feels less valuable when the influences are so recent, so popular, and most most concerningly, so much more effective in their original place. Little is done with the homages other than extreme attempts to appropriate emotional cues earned better and more fully in earlier films. Sometimes it works, those beats can hit effectively, or evoke a chuckle, but they also tend to inspire a wistful desire to be watching those superior earlier movies, a feeling I less often have in those cleverly injected homages of De Palma and Tarantino.
In the end, Everything Everywhere All at Once loses me as it begins straining for its own absurdity, masking silliness in platitudes and refusing to let either go until the whole thing exhausts itself into an overlong feeling mess. Choosing neither to fully take its jokes seriously, nor to allow them to arrive and pass with the speed and franticness of a Looney Tunes short, the film ends up in this unfortunate middle ground. It doesn’t help that the Rick and Morty style of humor doesn’t fully work for me independent of its role in the movie, but I do think it’s a bigger problem than just a joke falling flat. It attempts to invite empathy for these hot dog hand, racoon-controlled characters that the film has previously expressed are little more than jokes. It hardly ends up landing as little more than saccharine gestures at some grander emotionality, and it devalues the more important catharses of the plots in the universes that ultimately matter (to the film, the audience, and frankly the characters).
I can’t say too much about the politics of Everything Everywhere All at Once: They’ve been interpreted across the political spectrum. What I will say is that the various interpretations have brought out a sense that the vague gestures at kindness and love which the film ultimately settled on make the film an ultimately concerningly malleable liberal object. I can appreciate readings of the film as a discourse on trans suicide, just as much as I can bemoan observations of the film as fetishism of the traditional family unit. Regardless of intention, the film is escapist in its conclusion and frankly faces the legitimacy of nihilism with the inadequate conclusion that love conquers all. It’s nice to want a happy ending and believe in the power of a warm hug, but the film presents too much to suggest greater complexity that a settlement on such simplicity feels a bit unearned.
Contrary to much of this review, I liked Everything Everywhere All at Once. In one sense, the worst thing that could happen to it in my eyes was winning best picture over the numerous far more deserving films this year. In another sense, that may end up producing its greatest strength: The great work that this success will now allow Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh will do far outweighs any concerns about the film’s legitimacy as a Best Picture. Regardless, I’m happy for those who enjoyed the film and a bit sorry that it didn’t all come together for me. Maybe one day I’ll get over the Best Picture loss of my beloved The Fabelmans, and that will change my perspective on the film. But for now, I can just get excited for what’s next, and intrigued to see more future genre-film Oscar winners (hopefully ones I like a bit better than this).
This is the seventh article in a series covering each of the Best Picture Oscar Nominees. Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].