The Oscars’ best picture might seem radical. But it’s as traditional as they come
It will surprise few people and interest fewer to hear that the motion picture academy’s choice for best picture of the year was a far cry from my own. That happens most years anyway, and it’s long been the prerogative (some would say the obligation) of film critics and Oscar voters to disagree. And from the moment it appeared on the scene, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s frenzied mashup of immigrant fable, martial-arts spectacular, cosmological slapstick and multiverse-spanning group hug, has provoked more than its share of disagreement.
Did I say disagreement? More like the kind of rancor that can thrive only in the hothouses of social media, where a movie about the importance of kindness somehow provokes some of the more hostile cinephile debates in recent memory. Had Daniels, as Kwan and Scheinert bill themselves, thrillingly rejuvenated the motion-picture medium, or had they turned out something so exhaustingly frenetic as to verge on unwatchable (at least in one sitting)? In concocting a genuine word-of-mouth theatrical hit (with more than $100 million worldwide, it’s by far A24’s biggest success), had they singularly disproved the theory that Hollywood originality is dead, or had they inadvertently confirmed it by making a derivative Marvel-adjacent superhero movie in indie drag?
I’ve been asking myself these and other questions since last March, not long after “Everything Everywhere All at Once” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and unfurled the story — or stories — of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a dismally unfulfilled Chinese American laundromat owner who saves the multiverse by harnessing the power of many, vastly more successful parallel-universe Evelyns and enacting momentous reconciliations with her long-suffering husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan); her estranged lesbian daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu); her perpetually disappointed father (James Hong); and even her alternately grouchy and murderous IRS auditor, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). Reviewing the movie at the time, I filed an admiring but ambivalent notice that seems a tad mealymouthed in retrospect: “I don’t know if this movie fully works in this universe, but I suspect it might in the next.”
Several months and several viewings later, I’m still waiting for that next universe to kick in, still trying to see the lasting greatness that so many others see in this admirably ambitious, wildly idiosyncratic and maddeningly overwrought movie. Funnily enough, though “Everything Everywhere” doesn’t strike me as remotely the best movie of the year, it has very much been the movie of my year — the one that, in all manner of annoying, bracing, culturally and aesthetically revealing ways, has simply refused to leave me alone.
Or maybe it’s the other way around: I’ve watched, rewatched, paused, rewound and, yes, dozed off during “Everything Everywhere All at Once” more times over the last year than I care to count. I’ve written appreciatively about its place in a cinematic renaissance for Asian American mother-daughter representation. I’ve reflected on the short time I spent on a film jury years ago with Kwan, who was as lovely, thoughtful and brilliant then as he’s been in his many acceptance speeches — the kind of guy whose movies you want to embrace wholeheartedly, rather than puzzle over from a somewhat vexed distance.
I’ve thought about the fact that, for $36, you can buy latex gloves with hot-dog fingers on the A24 website, in reference to one of the movie’s more belabored sight gags. (I haven’t thought about buying any.)
I’ve thought about how, in toggling restlessly between parallel worlds, “Everything Everywhere” captures something of the social fragmentation and narrative oversaturation of the internet age and its attendant, all-consuming feelings of apathy and despair: the sense that “nothing matters,” as Hsu’s all-powerful antagonist moodily declares. I’ve thought about the intense loyalty that the A24 brand commands among younger audiences in particular (they’re like Disney/Marvel fans with edgier taste), some of whom have taken to championing “Everything Everywhere” and attacking its detractors with such cultish devotion that Kwan himself has more than once had to urge his fans to practice some of the kindness his movie preaches.
For that matter, I’ve thought about the generational divide that many have noted between those who couldn’t stand the movie, like my uncle, and those who adored it, like my younger cousin and most of my undergraduate film criticism students. But I’ve also reflected on the folly of such generalizations, which are nearly as reductive as the notion that every Asian American everywhere — myself included — must love the year’s most acclaimed and popular Asian American movie.
How to reckon, then, with the fact that “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” with its phenomenal box office success and seven Oscar wins Sunday night, now stands as the most culturally and commercially significant Asian American movie ever made? It’s undeniably a watershed moment, and after roughly a century’s worth of Hollywood indifference to Asian characters, actors, stories and storytellers — plus the past few years’ heightened anti-Asian violence and rhetoric — it’s not one to be taken lightly.
In a year when a movie industry in post-pandemic recovery might have thrown its weight behind something more traditional — a rousing studio blockbuster (“Top Gun: Maverick” or “Avatar: The Way of Water”), a biopic of America’s greatest rock icon (“Elvis”), a personal memoir from Hollywood’s most beloved filmmaker (Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans”) — it’s significant that, for the first time ever, a movie centered on a messily dysfunctional Chinese American family swept top honors, with Daniels winning for best picture (shared with their fellow producer, Jonathan Wang), directing and original screenplay.
Even before the night began, “Everything Everywhere” had already helped make Oscar history with its acting nominations for Yeoh, Quan and Hsu — which, combined with Hong Chau’s supporting actress nomination for “The Whale,” made for a record four acting nominees of Asian descent in a given year. To everyone’s delight and no one’s surprise, Quan won the supporting actor Oscar, becoming only the second Asian performer to win in that category (after the late Cambodian-born actor Haing S. Ngor, for 1984’s “The Killing Fields”). Quan gave as nakedly emotional a speech as he’s given all season long, choking back tears as he described his moment as “the American dream.”
Most deservedly of all — and yes, even this “EEAAO”-gnostic let out a cheer — Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman and only the second woman of color ever to win an Oscar for lead actress, a milestone as thrilling as it is ridiculous in over nine decades of the Academy Awards’ existence.
Kenny and Irene Majers are the real-life owners of the San Fernando laundromat featured in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once.” This is their story.
None of the movie’s wins — which included a supporting actress win for Curtis and a prize for Paul Rogers’ editing — came as a shock. Long before final ballots were turned in, the Oscar-night dominance of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” once dismissed as too zany for stuffy academy sensibilities, had hardened into destiny. After a strong if not dominant run with critics groups and an unsurprising near-shutout at the British Academy Film Awards, Daniels’ movie steamrolled over the American guild circuit, winning top prizes from Hollywood’s producers, directors, actors, writers, editors, art directors and costume designers.
It dominated the Independent Spirit Awards to a tedious degree, sweeping every category in which it was nominated and leaving some of the year’s other noteworthy independent films, including “After Yang,” “Bones and All,” “Emily the Criminal,” “The Inspection” and “Women Talking,” with nary a single accolade among them. Somehow, the weird, wacky also-ran had ballooned into the most surefire awards juggernaut in recent memory — every award everywhere all at once! — a trajectory that echoes the drama of the movie itself. After all, if the biggest failure in the multiverse can turn out to be its savior, why can’t an unlikely awards contender defy its own statistical improbabilities and realize its Oscar dream?
The Academy Awards have, to their credit, become less and less statistic-dependent anyway. The academy is a more diverse, more international organization than it was several years ago, and its tastes are not easy to pin down. There is no easy-to-follow template for a best picture anymore (if there ever was), and films that enter the race reeking too obviously of traditional Oscar quality— a group that includes not only “The Fabelmans” but also two earlier Spielberg pictures, “The Post” and “West Side Story” — run the risk of falling by the wayside.
A best picture winner now can be filmed predominantly in a non-English language and feature actors of Asian descent, like the brilliant South Korean thriller “Parasite,” a movie to which “Everything Everywhere All at Once” otherwise bears little resemblance. In some respects, it feels more in line with last year’s winner, “CODA,” suggesting that pandemic-scarred academy voters are especially fond of cozily sentimental family dramas these days. And like “CODA,” which premiered at Sundance in 2021, Daniels’ movie played at a festival early in the year and ultimately demonstrated more staying power with voters than some of its later-breaking rivals.
The victory of “Everything Everywhere” ushers in a few best picture precedents of its own, with its “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Butt Plug” action sequences and those overworked hot-dog fingers (proudly worn by David Byrne during a midtelecast performance of the Oscar-nominated song “This Is a Life”). The wholehearted embrace of juvenile silliness and ostensibly world-shaking profundity is, of course, crucial to the appeal of a movie that delights in collapsing barriers between high and low, epic and intimate, past and present, universe and universe. Even the doom-laden everything bagel that provides the film’s titular motif is redeemed, by the end, as a doughy symbol of wholeness, a poppy-seed circle of life.
All this should be — wants to be — unbearably moving, and the awestruck tears of its many passionate fans suggests that it is. My own eyes remained so bone-dry on first and successive viewings that I wondered, for a moment, if I’d seen one Asian American dysfunctional-family movie too many — only to realize how dumb that question was, considering how few of them have even been made. That dearth of Asian American stories is something the movie, with its dizzying panoply of Evelyns, implicitly critiques; it’s why Yeoh and Quan, two superb talents who’ve never had the Hollywood careers they’ve deserved, are so poignantly cast as a married couple trying to figure out where their lives went astray.
There’s great purpose and meaning in the cultural redress that “Everything Everywhere” attempts, though I do wish its execution were surer, its aim truer. There are scenes and lines in the movie that could have felt ripped from my own Asian American upbringing: the way Evelyn reflexively calls Joy “fat” when she’s trying to have a heart-to-heart, or a tortured “Ratatouille”/“Raccacoonie” malapropism I could almost imagine my own title-butchering mom stumbling into. But even allowing for the movie’s comically (and cosmically) exaggerated register, these moments come across as strained, overworked approximations of Asian immigrant family banter — the work of filmmakers who seem eager to strike a chord with one half of the audience yet desperate to make sure they don’t lose the other half.
Could that be why “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which spends a lot of time laying out its delightfully screw-loose multiverse logic, seems to overexplain its big emotional beats and cultural specificities? Would it account for why Evelyn and Joy’s mother-daughter bond, for all its apocalyptic stakes, feels more telegraphed than fully inhabited? How to explain why the movie’s most weepily quoted line — “In another life, I would have really just liked doing laundry and taxes with you” — strikes me less as a romantic lament for the ages than as a calculated go-for-the-jugular moment, engineered for maximum retweeting? (Perhaps it takes more than an aquarium-green filter to evoke the spirit of Wong Kar-wai, a filmmaker who knows the value of saying more with less, and who is thus in little danger of ever winning an Oscar.)
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ dominated, Rihanna gets a standing ovation, Ke Huy Quan tears up and more at the 2023 Academy Awards.
I’m not accusing “Everything Everywhere All at Once” of insincerity. As this year’s most flamboyantly operatic best picture nominee not directed by Baz Luhrmann, the movie is off-the-charts sincere. That’s partly the problem: It’s so eager to bare its soul, to show you just how much its heart breaks for Evelyn and Joy and Waymond and Deirdre and everyone in the whole damn multiverse, that it practically does all your emoting for you. There’s almost no need — and no room — for a viewer to feel anything at all.
I say all this knowing that there are few things more cinematically subjective than what makes us laugh and cry. And audiences have wept buckets over “Everything Everywhere,” whose sheer too-muchness — its pull-out-the-stops, feel-all-the-feels, everything-plus-the-laundry-sink energy — is exactly what they love most about it. It’s what they feel has been missing from movies, and perhaps the Oscars, forever.
The academy seems to agree. Against the unceasing din of the multiverse, what chance was there for the subtler glories of the best picture race — the haunting ambiguities of “Tár,” the lyrical epiphanies of “The Fabelmans,” the intensely pointed debates of “Women Talking” or, hell, even the exploding mortar shells of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which are indeed quiet by comparison? The more I’ve thought about “Everything Everywhere,” for all its undeniable representational significance, the more traditional a best picture winner it seems. Beneath its veneer of impish, form-busting radicalism, it’s as epically self-important, broadly sentimental and thematically unambiguous a movie as any the academy has so honored.
Could the academy’s generosity ever extend, in future, to a more intimate, truthful, modestly scaled drama of Asian American life? A movie that prioritizes the specific over the multiversal, with subtler insights and fewer hot-dog fingers? I sure hope so — even if, for now, the wiener takes it all.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
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