Why 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' is already the movie of the decade – GBH News

Why 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' is already the movie of the decade – GBH News

The official synopsis from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” distributor A24 describes the movie as a “hilarious and big-hearted sci-fi action adventure about an exhausted Chinese American woman (Michelle Yeoh) who can’t seem to finish her taxes.” But no one who actually saw this movie would say that’s what it’s about.
Yes, the film from directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — collectively known as Daniels — does feature Yeoh’s character, Evelyn, struggling to meet an IRS inspector’s deadline. She deals with dissatisfaction from her father, daughter and husband. She finds herself in the middle of a “chosen one” narrative. There are beautifully edited action sequences and colorfully imagined parallel universes. Still, any conventional conflicts and tensions, emotional or physical, are overshadowed by the not-so-subtle explorations of our existential crises and situational absurdity.
What the film is actually about, though, is perfectly encapsulated in a question from “The Myth of Sisyphus” by philosopher and writer Albert Camus: “Does [life’s] absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide? This is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest.”
“We started making the connection of our work and absurdism, in a philosophical sense, when we did this short film called ‘Interesting Ball,”’ explained Kwan. “That’s when I started reading Camus and being like, ‘Oh, this is funny.’ I didn’t realize we were doing this, or we should try chasing this.”
The Daniels leaned into those themes with 2016’s “Swiss Army Man,” but “Everything Everywhere All at Once” presents a more refined outlook of what Kwan calls optimistic nihilism.
“It’s probably absurdism repackaged in a lot of ways; it’s very similar,” said Kwan. “It’s trying to accept the freedom that comes from fully accepting that there is no inherent objective meaning in the universe.” He continued: “I was watching all the other kids [at university] try to compete with each other. I’m like, ‘What are you doing? This doesn’t matter.’”
Kwan and Scheinert met as undergraduate film students at Emerson College. However, they took a decidedly unorthodox route toward professional filmmaking.
“We did undergrad, we learned a little,” explained Scheinert, adding that classes on evolution and the immigrant experience taught him more about filmmaking than a traditional filmmaking class. “And then we were like, ‘Oh, what can you learn off YouTube? What can you learn by making things and sharing it, and making connections, and reading the comments, and trying to make a better one next time?'”
The internet, as he sees it, “was like our master’s degree.” Going all in on the internet absolved the pair of shouldering the burden that’s typically found in creative classrooms, where students, as Kwan pointed out, can find themselves in competition with a handful of peers working on their own projects.
There’s a good chance “Everything Everywhere All at Once” will become a portal to the thematic and aesthetic heart of the world in which it was released; we’ll approach it the same way we currently look at movies from 2004 (in a post 9/11-era) or 1987 (Gordon Gekko and the excesses of the Reagan ’80s come to mind).
Released just the third year into this decade, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has the feeling of a thoroughly 2020s movie. It’s inextricably tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when sudden isolation left many of us asking some combination of the questions “What matters?” “Does any of this possibly matter?” and “How do we seize our own joys, or create our own meanings?” And the themes — the inherent meaninglessness of life, the weight of personal decisions, family conflict and generational trauma — couldn’t be more fitting.
Even though the film has tapped into the zeitgeist, it was actually conceived in what feels like another era. The Daniels conceptualized the film during the 2016 presidential campaign and wrote it during President Donald Trump’s time in office. (The directors have not stated that the film is a response to the Trump years. Coincidences are still a thing.)
“We shot the movie right before the pandemic and edited during lockdowns,” recalled Scheinert. “Suddenly it felt like these themes that we were chewing on were relatable as ever, and it was very therapeutic to have this story to work on.”
Ultimately, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was released to a nation weary of the social restrictions in place since the early days of the pandemic. This easily could have been the first movie someone saw in a theater in almost three years.
Fewer than two months after its theatrical debut, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” grossed $35 million against a budget of $25 million. This is an undoubtedly successful movie, but all the elements that make the movie what it is flies in the face of what we assume makes movies popular.
This is a movie centered on the non-European immigrant experience (of an older generation, at that). There are no discernible villains (in the mold of Nazis or Russian spies or Islamic terrorists or Alien threats). The central conflict isn’t a good guy-bad guy standoff (it’s effectively “parents just don’t understand”).
Eveyln is harangued by an IRS inspector. Her father, with whom she has a strained relationship, has just arrived from China. Her husband wants out of their marriage. Her daughter, whom she just doesn’t get, has a girlfriend. Cue a complicated journey of self-discovery and relationship repair.
“The villain is ourselves, it’s our families, it’s the way that we interact with each other and hurt each other,” said Kwan. “Generational trauma is the most important thing for us to be dealing with right now, because whatever we don’t deal with right now is going to be passed on to our kids. And those kids are going to have to solve the world that we f****d up. And if they aren’t well balanced, emotionally intelligent, resilient human beings, then I don’t know if you manage to survive the next 50 years.”
For most thirty-somethings heading to a theater to watch this movie, the dramatis personae break down like this: The hero is your parent, but the villain is also your parent, until the villain becomes you. However, the villain isn’t really you; it’s your realization of the absurd, and how arbitrary and meaningless this world is.
Along with the arbitrary expectations of society, this generational exchange (and the traumas it fosters) is the central conflict of the movie, and so it speaks to Millennials and Generation Z in a unique way. This is a demographic that’s openly talking about repairing the emotional damage wrought by generations present while also wondering about the survival and success of future generations.
“I’m constantly thinking ‘What am I passing on to my kid?'” said Kwan, who is a new parent. “I think it’s probably one of the hardest battles any of us will ever have to fight.”
It’s a relief to know you aren’t crazy for obsessing over unsustainable futures, and it feels good to see a serious, semi-goofy movie that is plugged into so much contemporary dive bar conversation and dinner party banter. And if the takeaway from this movie is that nothing matters, that might be a good thing. Because if nothing matters, you can make anything matter.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
James Bennett II is an arts and culture reporter for GBH News. The Brooklyn-based Bennett cut his public media teeth with New York Public Radio before joining this particular Boston outfit.
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