Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24
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The best movie of the year is a spectacular, multilevel meditation on what it means to be Jewish, or any other kind of human

Liel Leibovitz
May 19, 2022
Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24

There may be, in some other corner of the multiverse, a Liel Leibovitz who could actually write a coherent and elegant review of Everything Everywhere All at Once. He’s probably a few pounds lighter, knows its wise to call it quits after three martinis, and possesses the sort of elan needed to succinctly capture a film that begins as an airless drama about the Wangs, a family of Chinese American immigrants living above a laundromat, and very quickly takes a turn into a metaphysical acid trip about the choices we don’t make and the alternate, parallel universes they generate.

That Liel Leibovitz, the smarter one, would probably kick off his piece with a plot summary that doesn’t give away too many of the film’s most delicious gags, like the fact that part of it involves a reality in which human beings have hot dogs for fingers and play the piano with their feet. He would simply say that the movie begins with the Wangs facing a potentially ruinous IRS audit, because Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh, sublime) claimed her very loopy hobby as a tax-deductible expense; that her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, the second coming of Chaplin), is filing for divorce; that her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu, a joy indeed), is gay and hurting and resentful of her mother; that her father, Gong Gong (James Hong, showing why he deserves the Walk of Fame star he received earlier this month), is cold and uncaring; and that the tax agent haunting her is cruel and named Deirdre Beaubeirdra and is played to absolute perfection by the amazing Jamie Lee Curtis.

Multiverse Liel would then report that, about 10 minutes in, as the Wangs struggle to keep their small business from filing for bankruptcy, Waymond twitches his head and announces to Evelyn that he is not her husband but a man called Alpha Waymond, sent from the Alphaverse to warn her of a grave danger. That danger is Jobu Tupaki, a creature who was once Joy Wang but who learned how to verse-jump and has now become all powerful and wishes to destroy all existence by sucking it into a black hole in the center of a giant everything bagel. In the Other Liel’s more talented telling, it would have all made sense.

But as we, sadly, have only one universe in which to search for meaning, I’ll just say that there are only two things you should know about Everything Everywhere All at Once, hereafter EEAAO, now available to stream on an overpriced digital platform of your choice. The first is that there’s a reason why the movie’s a smash hit, bringing in the best per-theater box-office average since the new Spider-Man and ousted only by that other Marvel menace, Dr. Strange: It’s a work of sheer, unbridled, exuberant, lovingly chaotic and utterly pleasurable cinematic genius. Imagine the Coen brothers, Jackie Chan, Ridley Scott, and Pauly Shore getting together to make a movie and you may begin to get a feeling for the experience that awaits.

The second thing you should know about EEAAO is that it’s arguably the most insightful bit of commentary in any medium about our spiritual plight at this moment in time.

Which brings us back to that knotty plot.

The idea behind the movie is simple: Every time we make a decision—whom to marry, what to study, even what to eat for lunch—a separate but equal reality unfurls, one dedicated to what might’ve happened had we chosen differently. The multiverse, then, is simply the sum total of all of our what-ifs. Some are plausible and heartbreaking: In EEAAO, Evelyn connects with a version of herself that refused Waymond’s marriage proposal, became a big-time martial arts movie star, and enjoyed all the fame and fortune but none of the love of one good man. And some are funny and head-scratching, like a parallel universe in which Evelyn and Joy are both rocks, standing perfectly still and silent at the edge of a precipice, exchanging a halting dialogue in captions as they contemplate immovable eternity. But all corners of the multiverse are united by one foundational sorrow, the unbearable burden of going through life always questioning whether you’re doing the right thing, for yourself and for those you love.

Who among us hasn’t felt this crushing weight? We have life coaches and divorce lawyers and Peloton instructors and a whole battalion of professionals dedicated to making us pay for a sliver of reassurance, or, at least, for an abeyance of the anxiety that we are royally fucking up. The Evelyn in the beginning of the movie is in trouble because there are so many other things she’d rather be—a singer, an actor, a chef, a better daughter, a kinder mother, someone else’s wife. And the Joy who eventually becomes the dreaded Jobu Tupaki grows monstrous because, having experienced every conceivable permutation of herself, she realizes that having it all is exactly the same as having nothing at all. Perfection is just another form of nihilism, and once you’ve achieved it you may as well dream up a literal everything bagel—that is, a bagel topped with literally everything that exists here on Earth—and suck life itself into its cavity.

Both mother and daughter, in other words, display the sort of existential ennui that the species had experienced from its earliest days of hind-leg walking. No sooner had he stood upright than early man realized that being is a combinatorial pursuit, a series of interchangeable ands, ors, and nots that allow for nearly infinite sequences leading to nearly infinite outcomes.

And because no human being can function while constantly trying to calculate and evaluate the end result of any given action amid a multitude of might-have-beens, man fell back on religion, which is the process of injecting order and delivering relief by eliminating possibilities. To believe something is, by default, to accept that its opposite, at least, isn’t true. To practice faith is to do away with a set of behaviors that are otherwise available, even enticing: As an observant Jew, to give just one small but significant example, oysters are no longer a choice for me.

The Wangs understand this perfectly, and this is the pure power of EEAAO, the emotional force that turns it from a mere fun romp to a profoundly powerful meditation on being human. It’s not the spectacular fight scenes that deliver victory over evil; it’s understanding that family, and tradition, and the love and reverence we have for those mutually supporting, intensely human institutions are our engines of survival, as individuals and as a collective.

When the film begins, Joy and Waymond and Gong Gong and Evelyn and even Deirdre Beaubeirdra imagine happiness as only perfect creatures of the Enlightenment would, which is to say as a solitary, even solipsistic endeavor that likely comes at the expense of someone else’s well-being. Each sees the other as a hurdle to jump over, not a shoulder to lean on. Which is why they’re all so miserable.

It’s only fitting that so much of the film takes place inside an IRS building: Modern life, EEAAO tells us with a wink—the promise of absolute personal freedom from obligation and the license to do as you please—is dying with the whimper of a million tax liabilities. If you want to survive, start a family and sacrifice for it, respect your elders, celebrate your festivals, be a good neighbor, practice kindness—in short, do all the things that you heard your rabbi tell you to do before deciding that shul had little to teach a progressive and sophisticated little smartie like you.

Because that reality in which you can be happy? The one where you don’t second-guess every decision you make, the one where you experience real hurt but also real love and real hope, the one where you forgive others and, much more importantly, forgive yourself? Mazal tov—you’re already living in it.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.