Embracing Silly Chaos
If Victor Frankenstein found googly eyes he never would have needed a corpse. These funny little dots allow you to animate objects, make your environment less intimidating. It doesn’t matter what you put googly eyes onto, it’s always going to look goofy. They bounce around with just the slightest bump, transforming whatever object into a fun character. You see a stapler with googly eyes, for instance, and suddenly it’s the next Pixar creation. They feel childish, like something reserved for elementary school projects and 6-year-olds, but there’s something interesting about that dismissal. Googly eyes are almost always found on dismissed objects, things we don’t really think about too often, but see in a different light once they have eyes on them. Everything Everywhere All at Once features googly eyes in several background shots, and they are usually shown staring directly at the camera: watching the story and the viewer. Evelyn finds the eyes annoying; they are an ongoing symbol of her husband Waymond’s optimistic humor that she doesn’t have time for. He keeps sticking them to customers’ laundry, claiming that it makes the laundry happier.
Eyes appear throughout the film, as Joy’s disciples identify themselves with a makeshift third eye, just a black circle on their forehead. We eventually discover that this circle isn’t technically an eye, it represents the destructive everything bagel that Joy has created, but it still works like a third eye. The everything bagel and googly eye are the inverse of one another; one with an empty center surrounded by black, the other with a black pupil surrounded by white. The two are visually connected, suggesting that what they stand for is also connected. Silly, like the googly eye, and important, holding everything as the bagel does.
There are multiple omniscient figures in the film, those who see all possible realities and can move between them, harnessing their third eye, which is a type of perceptual vision that goes beyond one life or sight. It’s a serious concept with deadly and world bending consequences, but at the same time, it’s so complicated that it’s equally ridiculous. Evelyn later realizes this, sticking a single googly eye to her forehead in the film’s climactic showdown. It’s funny, especially when two more pin themselves over her father’s eyes. Hers starts to shake as she runs up the stairs to stop her daughter Joy in an otherwise very tense moment. This comedic toy is given all the seriousness one would usually give a traditional third eye, and there is an intentional humor to that.
“When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naïve. It is strategic and necessary.”
When Evelyn embraces Joy near the end of the film, both her daughter and the concept, Joy begins laughing through her tears, just repeating the phrase, “this is awkward”. The film argues that so is life, and while you can be nihilistic about that, there are more rewarding perspectives out there. When we first meet Evelyn, she is desperately trying to manage her chaotic taxes while also managing the people around her. She wants a specific image for her life, one that her difficult father will approve of. It reaches the point where Evelyn is just lying about her family, so they don’t have to talk about anything difficult. She doesn’t want to talk about her daughter being gay, even though she claims to ‘support’ the relationship, and she doesn’t want to talk about being audited in front of her father, instead telling him that their business is so successful that they want to open a second location. She certainly doesn’t want to talk about her husband filing for divorce, at least at the beginning of the film when she discovers the papers. Her world is chaotic and anxious, much like the giant pile of confusing and endless receipts that she has to sort through. It plays like a nightmare, like one of those dreams where you have to do something, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t even reach the end of a hallway, so your anxiety just keeps building until you wake up. Evelyn certainly gets a rude awakening when she is split into multiple rooms at the IRS office.
You never get to the consequence part in those stress dreams, you rarely actually arrive at the place you are supposed to go to and get in trouble. It’s more stressful that way because there is no closure or outcome, just anxiety. That also happens in the film, as Evelyn gets quite close to being charged for assault and tax evasion, but it never goes that far. Sure, she gets arrested, but she is quickly released. Ordinary things work out while Evelyn is dealing with a much larger problem: the pressure she places on her family, especially her daughter, across multiple realities. See, while Evelyn has been busy trying to achieve a perfect life, to the point where she almost tears herself apart after witnessing an alternative version of herself, one where she never got married or had Joy, her husband and daughter have been embracing the bizarre nature of the universe.
Joy has seen every possible reality, every choice that she could have ever made, in all combinations. Upon seeing this, her first impulse is to find her mom, so she doesn’t have to be alone. She believes that nothing means anything and wants to destroy herself just to find out what it will do. Joy, also called Jobu Tupaki, creates the everything bagel, which because it holds everything, is actually this giant nothing that will consume whatever goes into it. But it looks like a bagel, and is always described as such, which is funny. A powerful thing, something that gets built up for most of the film, is a bagel. This ridiculous tone goes further as Joy, driven mad by the bombardment of constant perception, attacks people by transforming their matter into different objects, turning one man into confetti, and then later becoming a piñata and rock with her mother. Nothing means anything, so things get weird quick. There is a whole universe where everything is essentially the same, but people have hotdogs for fingers, and use their feet as one would use their hands, even playing piano with them. But there is still sincere emotion and love in that weird world, and the only way Evelyn is later able to help her daughter is by facing the strange, not just judging it, fully embracing it. When she first falls into this hotdog universe, for instance, she hurts the people around her, actively pushing Deirdre away, because she can’t stand how weird the fingers are. Evelyn has to make amends when she later returns to this universe, committing fully to it’s strange but sincere world. Googly eyes become a symbol of this acceptance, as at first, Evelyn can’t stand them and is constantly ripping them off things, until she eventually accepts what they stand for. Life, but a bizarrely sweet and funny take on life.
“There is always something to love. Even in a stupid, stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with out feet.”
Each pathway between alternate universes can be opened by a random act, something so intentionally strange and out of character, that it suddenly shifts your current path and allows you to jump. Sometimes it’s painful, like giving yourself multiple paper cuts, other times it’s uncomfortable, like professing your love to a maniac whose is about to hit you in the face. That random path later becomes Evelyn’s tactic, not just embracing her other selves, but embracing the inherent strange nature of the universe. Evelyn accepts her husband’s route to ‘fight’ against Joy’s mob, the kind, sincere, and awkward route that she has always had trouble with. Everyone feels lacking, unloved, useless, and it’s up to Evelyn to show them that they aren’t alone. Rather than fighting the group, which she can, having recently mastered kung fu, she analyzes them, sees what is actually going on inside. She tells Deirdre, for instance, that she isn’t unlovable, which as we go on to see, is something she has been struggling with in multiple realities, from the hotdog version to the one she is currently living in. Evelyn essentially has to learn how to say ‘I love you’ to the people around her, and just go in for how awkward that exchange can be. She has tried saying it in other ways, like telling her daughter to lose weight, or constantly keeping her husband on track, but that isn’t enough.
Evelyn discovers that even though these realities are seemingly random, as are the methods used to jump between, she is always drawn to the same people, and these people are almost always dealing with the same problems. Given all the choices one could make, they are driven by this impulse to be with certain people, and that is exactly what Joy is dealing with. She is confused because even with all her power, she is still drawn back to her mother, she even stops fighting when Evelyn dismisses Joy’s relationship with Becky, stunned that her mom is still not getting it. When Evelyn first discovers that Joy is the one causing all of this horror, she believes that this destructive personality is not her daughter, it’s just influencing her daughter. That way, if she can stop this evil version, then her daughter will be fine, and she will stop getting tattoos and disobeying. Of course, that is not the case, and Evelyn soon realizes that she has to accept all forms of her daughter, regardless of her choices and where those choices lead, whether to rock or supervillain.
“The Only thing I do Know is that We have to be Kind…Especially When We Don’t Know What’s Going On.”
During a truly moving conversation between Joy and Evelyn, both as rocks, just staring over a cliff, Joy explains that every scientific discovery just proves that humans know nothing and are insignificant. That they always place themselves in the center of a complex and inaccessible conversation that will just prove that they are stupid. Simply put, humans are constantly making mistakes about themselves, and their place in the world. They are failures because nothing means anything, a phrase Joy repeats multiple times in the film. It’s a funny expression that you could read two ways. It’s either a sad or content statement, as you could say that ‘nothing means anything’ so why bother, because it will just mean nothing, or, you could say that ‘nothing means anything’ so stop trying to attribute meaning to your role in the universe and just enjoy your life and the people around you. The latter is what Evelyn and Joy eventually come to, as both accept that life is confusing and awkward largely because there is no perceivable meaning other than the emotions that we get from different people. The choices themselves are not as important as what those choices give us emotionally. The film argues that it doesn’t matter if we are stupid and awkward, or what kind of ego blow we will get from the next invention or discovery. We will continue to be stupid, but that doesn’t mean we have to be unkind or inconsiderate.
At the beginning of the film, Evelyn tries to file what her husband calls ‘hobbies’ as tax write-offs. Things like a receipt for a karaoke machine, featured in the film’s opening shot, and notes about her being a singer and singing teacher, along with other non-laundry related roles. It’s the whole reason Evelyn and her husband are being audited, as none of these receipts match their business. At the same time, however, they are also not write-offs. These skills are part of her, as we discover quite literally later in the film. Many of the skills Evelyn absorbs from her other lives are things she was already interested in but could never prioritize. She also uses them differently than what they were meant for, like using a singer’s strong lungs to survive a gas attack, and dance from her job as a pizza sign spinner to fight. This demonstrates that these skills are multidimensional, they go beyond just one job or thing, and so their value is not attached to a singular activity. Singing, for instance, gives a person multiple skills that they can use in plenty of non-singing activities. Even if you want to label these things as ‘hobbies’ instead of ‘skills’, you shouldn’t dismiss them. The same goes for people, as Evelyn learns to stop dismissing what is on the surface and realize that people come from layers of different choices, and the skills those choices grant. She learns that Deirdre isn’t just a cold IRS employee, as even in Evelyn’s main reality, she drops charges after Waymond tells her that Evelyn’s behaviour is because he filed divorce papers. It’s an unexpected move, even though Evelyn can see all possible realities during this scene.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is about awkward chaos, and not know if you’ve made the perfect choice, and instead just going with that rather than ascribing meaning to everything you do. There is meaning in what makes us happy, however impulsive, or even regret filled that happy might be. Evelyn isn’t happy, even in her most successful life, where she is a single movie star. She would still choose her worst life with the people she loves. This also means that there is no such thing as a useless hobby, as they all lend practical skills and joy (more importantly) to a person. It doesn’t have to be a job, as it is in her other lives. Regret is a non-starter here, because that tells you that you have no current choices, because of the choices you made before and can’t change.
“Of All the Places I Could Be, I Just Want to Be Here With You.”
I keep thinking about the film’s first shot, the one of Evelyn and her family singing karaoke, reflected in a small mirror that we zoom into. They are happy, and that is not a write-off, even though Evelyn tries to label it as that on her taxes to save some money. The whole film is building this commentary about joy, both on and off screen. One of the more frequent headlines I’ve seen about the film has been from an interview star Michelle Yeoh gave, about how important the film is to her, and how it’s focus on an Asian immigrant woman as a superhero is crucial because “this story gives voice to the mother, aunties, and grandmothers whose stories are often overlooked”, particularly in Hollywood. The film is addressing several forms of dismissal, narratively and production wise, and trying to move forward by rejecting this dismissal through joy, just as its characters do.
There are several popular films and series which approached existentialism from a similar silly standpoint, because ultimately humans are entirely uncomfortable with their bodies, lives, deaths, pretty much everything. Life gets weird, not necessarily in a supernatural or alternate reality way, weird in general. I was a big fan of the Netflix series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for that very reason, as it argues sort of the inverse of Everything Everywhere All at Once, but with the same message. Dirk Gently suggests that everything happens for a reason, and nothing also happens for a reason. It means that in a very literal sense, as every event and person is built by a series of random and often dismissible events that are unperceivable to most, but radically important. That show also features a few powerful figures who act as “leaves in the stream of creation”, sort of the Universe’s tools to maintain this chaotic system, but even they just have to trust that whatever they do, wherever they are, is exactly what they were supposed to do. So, we get figures like Bart, the Holistic Assassin who kills seemingly random people, but never the wrong person. Dirk Gently focuses on solving impossible cases through ridiculous means, which is also true of Everything Everywhere All at Once but with one significant difference. The film characterizes this surrender as something you have to do because focusing too much on the universe will drive you insane.
In Dirk, you are always where you need to be, and your choices are always leading to what needs to be done. That certainty is not found in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s film, and that is part of the point. Both embrace the ridiculous, but the film comes away more like the famous David Bowie song “Changes”, specifically the lyric, “time may change me, but I can’t trace time”. I used to think the lyric was “but I can trace time”, most do, but the line is actually “can’t”, meaning I can’t trace what has made this change, the factors are far too chaotic and imperceptible, so I am just going with it. That is what Evelyn moves to at the end of the film, having survived each section of the film’s title. First Everything, then Everywhere, and finally All at Once, suggesting that she is now in this sort of content place of being everything, everywhere, all at once, but also choosing to focus on just one place rather than everything that could have been, and everywhere she could be. In the middle of unlimited perception, Evelyn chooses to stay and fix what is around her and help people she cares about. It’s an awkward and difficult path, but much like the film’s googly eyes, it’s a weirdly happy life too, regardless of how dismissible it may seem on the surface.