Reflections on “Everything everywhere all at once”
The extraordinary in the banal, self-actualization, boddhisatvas, compassionate loving-kindness, nihilism and googley eyes
After multiple recommendations, I was able to go to the theater and watch “Everything everywhere all at once”. The film is incredible. I highly, highly recommend you watch it.
“Everything everywhere all at once” (EEAAO) was directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a duo known as “Daniels”. Their work up to this movie has primarily been focused on music videos with only one feature length film (see their work here).
What follows in this post are my reflections and thoughts after watching EEAAO since I think it’s one of the best self-actualization stories I’ve ever experienced (move over Siddhartha! Move over Tree of Life!).
One warning though: what follows below is FULL of spoilers and I assume you have watched the movie. If you haven’t watched it, I would highly recommend you stop reading now and instead find out where to watch the movie (click this link to go to Google and find showtimes). After you’ve watched it, come back!
No really, it’s worth stopping now if you haven’t watch the movie and just find a time to go watch it. This post won’t even make sense until then…
Okay, if you’re still here. Let’s talk!
Overall I was floored by this movie. I had high expectations going in (it’s one of the top-rated movies ever so far) and yet, my expectations were met and exceeded. The more I reflect on the film, the more I keep finding layers of genius within and I can’t wait to rewatch.
Let’s start with the settings: why the laundromat and the IRS??
Beauty in everything: From the banal, to the extraordinary, and back to the extraordinary in the banal
The movie begins in the most banal of settings. And there’s a reason for this!
There are two main settings for the entire movie: a bland Laundromat and a stale IRS building. At first the audience empathizes with the blandness: you see Evelyn doing her tedious taxes and you are bored and frustrated by the large set of receipts to work through. It looks terrible and Evelyn is clearly miserable about it. The world takes a turn though once the alphaverse comes into Evelyn’s life and she sees the alternate universes other hers experience.
This first act of the film has Evelyn realize that she could have been someone else if she’d made different life choices. She sees the path of “everything”: She realizes that she could have been a kung fu master. She could have had hotdog hands. She could have been a singer… She could have been extraordinary!
And this is where most movies would have ended. Act 1: she sees a brighter future and takes one of them. FIN. And accordingly, this is the end of the first part of the movie (“Part 1: Everything”). We see the end of the film (recursively) where kung fu Evelyn sees her movie premiere and could decide to stay in this world as a superstar and leave the laundromat behind, if she decides to.
But EEAAO is not a normal movie! It pushes beyond this and we enter the second act: Evelyn realizes that she too can be Joku Bhakur - she can also be ‘everywhere” and by opening herself to the fact that she is not just this independent smaller entity she then becomes super-powered. Evelyn transcends just becoming one person and moves beyond any one identity. She opens up her mind and enters the third act of the movie: “Part 3: all at once” is her path to compassion and self-realization.
By the end of the movie we return to the banal setting of the IRS and the Laundromat only this time they are full of life. The sterile atmosphere of the laundromat finishes with the red lanterns of Chinese New Year and each of the characters that seemed bland and disenchanted at the start, now have clear human dimensions we empathize with: there is the man who has memories of his wife’s perfume, there’s Deirdre the IRS agent who speaks of her divorce and could have been a lover in hotdog land, there is woman with the large nose and her Pomeranian. They all become real characters that are now fully alive and extraordinary in this original setting.
In this backdrop we also have the bollywood-like movie that is playing at the laundromat. At the beginning this movie seems to be a counterpoint to the foreground. However by the end the two have merged and the magic of the everyday shines through - the laundromat itself is way more alive than the extraordinary movie.
A similar transformation happens at the IRS. Initially it’s a sterile set of cubicles in a stale building. Deirdre, the IRS Agent’s cubicle looks miserable and her outfit and acting makes us wallow in the banal. However, the scene quickly becomes extraordinary as it turns into a war zone full of magic and kung fu. But by the end of the movie the IRS again transforms: the final scenes have the main staircase become a sublime, transcendent, colorful, plant- and smoke-filled kung fu meta-consciousness ladder with the “everything bagel” up on top. It’s ordinary no longer as Evelyn engages with all of the characters in a fully compassionate way (more on this below).
Taking you on this journey is the movie’s magic.
The way the film is tied together doesn’t hit the audience over the head with morality but instead delivers it in a subtle unfolding with glorious editing. Reading that the movie directors have a background in music videos makes sense - every scene and transition is transformative. The scenes where you see all of Evelyn’s lives flash by makes you wish you could pause each frame and see the beauty: the costumes, the makeup, the colors, the hairdos, the facial expressions - the variety of human experience just blows you away as you sit and bathe in the film’s light.
Evelyn’s self-actualization and Kegan adult development theory
This fully cycle from banal to extraordinary and back happens through Evelyn’s self-actualization.
At the outset Evelyn’s mindset is firmly “I’m doing taxes. I work at the laundromat and I wish I wasn’t.” We then have the transformation described above where she is able to see how extraordinary her life could have been. She longs for this future. At one point she turns to her husband and says something like: “I wish you could see how much better my life could have been without you! I could have not been doing taxes. I could have been famous.”
However, Evelyn doesn’t stop here. Her self-actualization progresses.
One way to think about Evelyn’s journey is via the Kegan adult development theory. The theory holds that there are multiple levels to adult development as people self-actualize:
“Each [Kegan] level is defined by your ability to regard particular aspects of your life as an object, rather than being completely subjected to it and thus being unable to reflect on them. […This ] means that your level in Kegan’s defined hierarchy depends on how well you are aware of some aspects in your life and capitulated on them as opposed to being pushed around by forces you don’t understand.”
For Evelyn this is her journey: she moves from a world where she is intimately tied to the object of her being, to one where she can see the her identity goes beyond her immediate surroundings, to one where she understands the interconnection with all beings. In Kegan terms, Evelyn starts at Level 3 and ends the movie at Level 5 (“recognizing commonalities and interdependence with others”).
Evelyn pushes into Level 5 when she moves past the “everything bagel” into a world of compassion. She sees the world of nihilism that could come from a broader perspective on the world but she doesn’t take it. She moves beyond this into further self-realization until at the end she comes full circle back to her existing world and embraces it with acceptance.
“I want to do taxes and run a luandromat with you” she tells her husband.
How far we’ve come from her early realizations! What an arc!
And we see this growth in all her relationships. Outside the laundromat at the end Evelyn embraces the IRS agent and they have a meaningful conversation and a smoke, she lets her husband handle the tricky situation and he solves it (after constantly thinking he can’t do it), she is honest and vulnerable with Joy and they reconcile and walk away from the everything bagel of nihilism into a compassionate appreciation and recognition.
Evelyn and compassionate, loving kindness (Metta)
The key for Evelyn that was the turning point into Kegan Level 5 self-actualization was embracing full compassion. By the end she fully became a boddhisatva: “In Mahayana Buddhism, a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.”
At first you see that Evelyn is closed off to everything: “I don’t have time!” she says when the multiverse approaches her. She is firmly grounded in her identity and her identity’s tasks.
Her first task from the alphaverse is actually very small: she has to swap her shoes to the wrong foot. However, this is a huge task for her. She is clearly very uncomfortable about it and is reluctant to do it. Similarly, her next task is to say “I love you” to Deirdre, the IRS agent - again, she can’t do it after many tries despite Deirdre trying to kill her. She can’t fully enter this path. However, when she finally does so, it is her first major unlock - this unexpected step into compassion provides the key.
As the movie unfolds, we see Evelyn unfold more layers of compassion. She has compassion for herself and then in the final scenes she enters compassion for everyone ending with her husband, father and daughter. She moves beyond the world of fighting into the path of loving kindness which ends up saving the universe.
In Buddhism there is a practice called “metta” which is exactly what Evelyn practices. Metta is a form of meditation where you embrace compassionate, loving-kindness for everyone and everything. The final part of EEAAO is Evelyn is moving through this practice and extending her wish for happiness to all beings. To see what I’m talking about and how this applies, here is a typical description of metta:
[…] Metta meditation is a beautiful support to other awareness practices. One recites specific words and phrases evoking a "boundless warm-hearted feeling." The strength of this feeling is not limited to or by family, religion, or social class. We begin with our self and gradually extend the wish for well-being happiness to all beings. […]
Metta is first practiced toward oneself, since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves. Sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the following or similar phrases:
May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.
After a period of directing loving-kindness toward yourself, bring to mind a friend or someone in your life who has deeply cared for you. Then slowly repeat phrases of loving-kindness toward them:
May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.
As you continue the meditation, you can bring to mind other friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, animals, and finally people with whom you have difficulty. […]
Sometimes during loving-kindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these to be signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. You can either shift to mindfulness practice or you can—with whatever patience, acceptance, and kindness you can muster for such feelings—direct loving-kindness toward them.
This is what Evelyn does as she ascends the ladder in the IRS: first she has loving understanding towards herself, and once that is unblocked she then is able to do “loving kindness kung fu” as she moves up the ladder ascending into her higher levels of self-realization by recognizing her own love for each person. Each step of the IRS’ ladder connects her compassion to another characters (e.g., from the IRS lady, to the raccoon-chef, to the IRS S&M boss). She ascends the levels of the stairs until she reaches the top level and finally is able to feel compassion and through it transcendence for her daughter and father.
Moving beyond nihilism through humor
The way the movie is presented and directed is extraordinary in that the absurdist, and often grotesque humor helps the audience lower their guard and fully process the self-actualization journey with Evelyn. This makes it so much more emotionally resonant than other movies which try to tell similar arcs.
For instance, the absurdist violence of throwing the pomeranian as a weapon; using the fanny pack as nunchuks; eating the chapstick to get special powers - these all add levity to a much more serious and mystical story.
Similarly, relying on the common plot line of “you’re a hero in the multiverse and must save us all” helps the audience really lean into the plot - “don’t worry”, it seems to say, '“this isn’t a serious movie… you can relax.” And in so doing, we are told one of the most meaningful tales of all.
The absurdist humor of having to do something whacky in order to go to an alternate universe is similar. It’s funny but meaningful. The premise is that you can get closer to other multiverses by something super irrelevant and out of character. The list of things everyone does is totally absurd but the underlying idea is that we are deeply shaped by the choices we make in our life, we are constantly making these choices and they happen in every situation. Small things like changing what foot your shoe is on, to not jumping on a phallic shaped trophy, are things we choose every moment and they ultimately shape our life. These small forks in the road are what Evelyn finally is able to see when she chooses the alternate paths of compassion in every situation. Similar to how everything moves in slow motion in her kung fu scenes, at the end she is able to see clearly how she has compassionate choices even in the most violent situations.
Through amazing cinematic direction, this humor consistently goes from the laughable to the real.
Another example was raccoontouille. At first you see a raccoon on the cooks head and think its ridiculous. (After being surprised it’s real in the first place!) However, by the end you have full empathy towards the cook and want him and Evelyn to go save the raccoon from the animal rescue truck. You are crying as you try to reunite with a racoon! How amazing is that!
Similarly there is the hot dog universe which is so is ridiculous and initially grotesque. When I first saw the hot dog fingers I almost gagged... And yet, by the end of the story you empathize with the IRS character (Deirdre) and with Evelyn - it’s cute they have the cat frames around their house in hot dog land. They play sweet piano with their feet! They express love through ketchup and mustard! Talk about compassionate empathy!
Here are the Daniels talking more about this scene from from this interview and how it’s made to force you to go to the empathy extremes:
“We were writing and thought, ‘We need to come up with a universe that’s the biggest empathy challenge,’” Scheinert said. “What was the toughest universe that was going to make Evelyn think the multiverse is gibberish when she first visits it — and by the end, can we make her and the audience care about that universe?”
Added Kwan: “It’s such a stupid idea. A 5-year-old has probably thought of this — oh, they look like fingers! The real difference is that we took the time to be like, in a world of hot dog hands, what is the beautiful story there?” Love, of course.
“Evelyn has to find a way to love a universe in which her auditor, the woman she hates the most of the world, is her lover, and their genetics have evolved in the way in which their mating ritual is so foreign and grotesque to her that she literally wants to gag from it,” Kwan said. “To take that absurd image and try to force her to see the beauty in it was a really fun challenge.
Rocks & googley eyes
Finally, I think my favorite part of the movie was the rock scene since it helps the audience confront nihilism and transcend it.
There’s the giant panorama of rocks. Evelyn and Joy two big ones in the landscape. Silence except for the planetary winds.
“This is what the universe is like” the text says. We are insignificant. The rock scene shows us that most of the universe is empty, lifeless rock. Nothing matters. Joku Bhakur’s “everything donut” is a natural reaction to this realization.
In an interview on EEAAO, the Daniels’ describe how there’s a companion book for the movie called “A Vast, Pointless Gyration of Radioactive Rocks and Gas In Which You Happen to Occur” (I just ordered the book here). (The title of the book is a quote from Alan Watts in a talk called “We as organism”.)
This title is this scene: we are just a small speck that occurs in a Vast, Pointless Gyration of Radioactive Rocks and Gas. Isn’t the everything donut black hole the only natural response?
The rock slowly turns…
We see googley eyes on the rock!
They’re inspired by Evelyn’s husband!
This is the path forward - the rock and the nihilism are real but our responses to it are also real and can be anything!
“Wait you’re a rock?” Joku Bhakur’s rock says angrily. “You can’t do that!”
“I can do anything!” “Anything is possible” says Evelyn’s rock.
And the big rock hops closer to the little rock.
The humor lets us see the path forward: yes, we are the little piece of random debris in the universe, just like they are the rocks in the alternate universe that never produced life. However, you can choose what you do!
The googley eyes pulls us out of nihilism and unblocks us to see we create our own paths and we can choose the paths of love.
The googley eye becomes Evelyn’s literal and figurative third eye!
Evelyn’s husband who we have ignored throughout the movie suddenly becomes the hero because he is compassionate! At the beginning of the movie we think his hero is his super-powered alphaverse alter ego - but that was just a step in the journey. The real self-realization was the compassionate, fanny-pack wearing original husband: he stops the fight when he steps in front of Evelyn in the IRS. He shows us the other path. He is also a boddhisatva.
In the beginning scenes of the movie we are introduced to the googley eyes. Evelyn is annoyed by them. “He puts googley eyes everywhere!” she says as she takes them off angrily. “Where did he put laundry bag number 42?” she says. “Oh, it’s happier here” he says as he makes ordinary choices happier.
And by the end we finally understand why. It all connects! The ordinary laundromat can be extraordinary. The rock is not just a rock. The IRS agent is not just an IRS agent. Every characters has a past and can be self-actualized. We have a choice in what we make of our actions and how we see the world!
“First we thought we were the center of the universe. Then we realized the sun is just one star among trillions. Someday we’ll find some other shit that will make us even smaller.” the text says overlooking the rocks.
“But that’s ok!” the movie resoundingly and magnificently shouts.
“Here are my googley eyes!”
“Here is the raccoon chef!”
“Here is my pinky kung fu boddhisatva!”
We can make decisions to give our lives meaning. We can choose compassionate paths! Every moment is a choice.
PS: I have focused this review on the plot of the film but every other part of it was incredibly well done. The costumes, the editing, the score… Speaking of costumes I keep trying to find all of the outfits of Jobu Tupaki since they were so incredible… I could only find a few below.