Our panel of experts discusses whether last year’s surprise breakout can win it all on Hollywood’s big night.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, from the directing duo known as the “Daniels” (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), has turned out to be one of 2022’s biggest success stories. It’s a quirky, non-franchise film with a wholly original plot about a Chinese immigrant mother who owns a laundromat with her husband, has a tense relationship with her daughter, and is hurtled into a fantastical plan to destroy the multiverse. Not your typical Oscar fare.
It has netted a whopping 11 Oscar nominations, and two of its stars — Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh — have been feted all awards season. Could this little film that became a sensation have a chance on Hollywood’s big night?
To discuss why the film was such a success, why it tugged at audiences’ heartstrings, and what it would mean if it won Best Picture, we gathered Vox culture reporters Alissa Wilkinson, Alex Abad-Santos, and Aja Romano, along with politics reporter Li Zhou, for a discussion around a (virtual) roundtable.
Alissa Wilkinson: Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAAO) turned out to be a bona fide sensation, and I confess I was a little surprised. Maybe I’m just brain-poisoned from years of seeing only franchise films top the charts, but I thought this kooky, frenetic, big-hearted, wild-imagination film might be too much for audiences. Yet it really turned out to be the little movie that could. It opened modestly and never really exploded, but it played in theaters for months (which most movies don’t get to do these days) and ended up making a very healthy amount of money: over $70 million in the US, and over $100 million worldwide, the magic number that turns a movie from a “modest success” to a hit. All that with a modest budget of around $25 million, and without a Marvel star or preexisting IP in sight. And those numbers tell a story — in this case, that the main ingredient in its success was word-of-mouth buzz.
People who saw it liked it, and they grabbed their friends by the shoulders and yelled, “You too must see this!” and went back a second and maybe a third time to see it again. That’s the way movies used to be, but few get that chance anymore. So I want to ask: In your estimation, what accounts for that success? What about it grabbed people enough that they had to grab their friends? What’s the secret sauce? Why did you see it?
Alex Abad-Santos: Throughout EEAAO’s theatrical run, one of the big explanations of why it was doing so well was word of mouth — basically that people who saw the movie went and told everyone how great it was. The funny thing about that is that this movie is impossible to explain. No amount of description — alternate timelines, jumps, existential crises, moms, hot dog fingers, butt plugs, etc. — could ever accurately describe what’s happening at any given moment during this maximalist fantasia. And if you tried to describe all those things, I don’t think that would sell the movie.
I think what I ended up doing was that I would tell someone, “Go see this movie.” Then that person sees it, and you can finally talk to them about how absolutely bonkers everything is. You can say, “THE ROCKS!” and the other person will say, “THE ROCKS!” and then you both say, “THE ROCKS!” and it’s like speaking a secret language, which I think all points to how the Daniels, Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and that incredible cast pulled it off.
Aja Romano: When we think about the why, I think there are a couple of factors. One is the sheer popular appeal of a movie produced by the guys behind Stranger Things, made by the guys who did the “Turn Down For What” video, with a cast that includes a martial arts movie legend, a horror scream queen, and an ‘80s action movie child star. It’s a storyline about a multiverse with an entire subplot dedicated to homaging Ratatouille. This film’s geek cred is almost as stuffed and randomized as its plot.
But the other thing is that the film’s utter absurdism functions like a yell in response to the present age. We live in an era where our foremost Black rapper is a white supremacist, where Florida bans math books for teaching kids about their feelings, where chatbots are learning to generate gigantic-chested fake girls with missing fingers and extra eyelids. Reality seems more overwhelmingly surreal by the day, so why not make a movie that combats existential despair using positive absurdism, where Jamie Lee Curtis may have hot dogs for hands. Even people with hot dogs for hands can have epic multiverse-spanning love stories, and that’s beautiful.
Because the other thing about this movie is not just that it got incredible word-of-mouth, but that everyone also told you to bring tissues: that this was not just a fun, zany, chaotic brain-buster of a movie, but one that would shred your heart in the best way.
Li Zhou: Yes! It’s that combination of tenderness and spectacle that ultimately got me. The quiet moments that the film sets up between its main characters including Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) amid the literal chaos that everyone has alluded to, are such an artful contrast and respite.
The now-iconic line about laundry and taxes, for example, is so emblematic of how the movie is part pandemonium and part raw emotion. In the end, EEAAO has got cooking raccoons, martial arts battles, and BDSM interludes, as well as this mushy and warmhearted core that’s captivating in its own right.
Alissa: Among the movie’s many virtues — and we all agree, it has many — is the way it deals with some potentially thorny or tricky subjects in the form of a multi-universe melodrama/comedy. It’s about parents saying they’re sorry, about quantum physics, about regretting your past, about depression and anxiety, and about the experience of a family in which the parents are Asian immigrants and the daughter was raised in America. Which of these — or any other — struck a chord with you as you watched? And how well do you think the movie handled them?
Alex: Being that my parents immigrated to America in the ’80s and I’m a first-generation Asian American who just happens to be a flagrant homosexual who loves Michelle Yeoh (ever since Crouching Tiger), there were moments in this movie that hit close to home. Like, yes, a scene about how difficult it is for immigrant parents to fully understand their kids’ lives (and vice versa) is going to strike a nerve! At the same time, Yeoh’s Evelyn and Hsu’s Joy felt like distinct characters with unique journeys that I wanted to see more of and was refreshed by.
I do find it wickedly funny that a few years ago, the buzz was about Crazy Rich Asians and what its success meant for Asian American representation in Hollywood movies. At the time, I tepidly joked that hopefully we would get to the point where Asian people didn’t have to be rich or glamorous to warrant a movie being made about them, that maybe true equality and representation would mean that “crazy poor Asians” would get to have stories too. And, well, Parasite won Best Picture in 2020, and three years later we have a story about a depressed Asian American immigrant mom and her existentially crisis-afflicted daughter in the running for another top award.
Aja: A lot has been written about Joy’s monster as a metaphor for her depression, and I think the movie handled that so well, but it was Evelyn’s anxiety that also really spoke to me, personally — she had this sense of feeling overwhelmed with every small thing she had to do just to get through daily living. With Joy, my feeling was closer to, “Is she depressed or just living in 2022?”
But also the dynamic between them was so rich and painfully real — the barbs they exchanged landed every time. Certainly every queer kid can relate to the horror of one’s parents trying to mitigate the way they introduce their significant other to relatives who might be less than charitable. The deep hurt and tension laced throughout those scenes was a stellar example of how this movie shows you its taut intergenerational conflicts without spelling them out. Such disparate 2022 movies as Turning Red and the horror film Umma also prominently featured Asian diaspora protagonists working through a lot of trauma as immigrants and reconciling with their parents across generational and cultural conflicts. As with both of those films, I found this one extremely universally relatable on all these fronts.
Li: To Alex’s point, the fact that this film, and multiple others that have garnered acclaim in recent years, like Minari, are about the stories of different Asian American families without relying on dated tropes or the qualifier of being “crazy rich” is pretty moving and feels significant.
And I especially loved how Yeoh described this film in her Golden Globes speech as centering a “very ordinary immigrant Asian woman, mother, daughter, who was trying to do her audit.”
One of the relationships that stood out to me in the movie was also the one between Evelyn and her father, who’s referred to as Gong Gong (James Hong). As a child of immigrants, I’ve definitely witnessed the fracturing between different generations of family members that can be part of the immigrant experience, and the film does a really admirable job capturing the enduring nature of that pain. Relatedly, I thought James Hong’s performance — in addition to those of the other leads — was phenomenal and should be getting more hype.
Alissa: There’s one other big part of this movie that seems hot right now: Like many a recent blockbuster (we are looking at you, MCU), it’s about the multiverse. More specifically, it uses the idea of many universes coexisting to plumb something that feels very true about love, relationships, regret, and empathy.
It’s interesting to me to see multiverse concepts employed in this manner — it’s a little like what actually does happen in the MCU, but instead of being focused on the action, it’s focused on the emotion. Why do you think this concept resonates so much with filmmakers and audiences right now?
Aja: I think it goes back to that feeling of being overwhelmed that I spoke of earlier. Reality is just so much lately, and it’s partly in response to that feeling that we’ve seen an increase in a kind of performative nihilism — everything from edgelord meme culture to shitposting to billionaire bunkers and covid fatalism. We see that reflected in the film: Joy’s — er, Jobu Tupaki’s reason for trying to destroy the multiverse is that “nothing matters.”
And when you’re faced with that kind of argument, the only possible answer a hopeful human being can really provide, if we want to not be crushed beneath the weight of the alternate possibility, is: “No, everything matters.”
What better way to show that than through a multiverse where everything, every act and choice, even tiny gestures of humanity or inhumanity, has a ripple effect — not just across lives but across dimensions? Everything, everywhere, all at once, matters.
Alex: I have to agree with Aja. One of the more popular refrains of the last few years is that we are all living in the stupidest timeline. And we do! There are so many heinously daft things happening in all of our lives right now that sometimes you cannot help but laugh at it all! The hope and possibility that there’s a version of me living a better, more fun, more hilarious life than me right now is such a joy to think about, and I think that — in large part — is what makes the movie feel so nourishing.
Li: One of the other functions of the multiverse that felt particularly special in Everything Everywhere All at Once is how this concept enabled the actors to take on different versions of their characters. The toggling back and forth between the various Waymonds, Evelyns, Joys, and Gong Gongs was both impressive to witness and an approach that was constantly pushing the audience to reconsider its perception of various characters.
The contrast between Alpha Waymond and Regular Waymond, for instance, offered this really interesting commentary on masculinity, and how the value of kindness, playfulness, and optimism, is often overlooked.
Alissa: So now I guess it’s time to address the googly-eyed rock in the room: Can this movie win Best Picture? I vacillate wildly between thinking it’s a slam-dunk and a long shot. Maybe it’s both. And if you don’t care to venture a guess at the mind of the Academy, what would it mean for a movie like this to win at the Oscars?
Alex: I have a tip that gives me peace of mind, and it is that awards don’t matter. These awards don’t reward quality or ingenuity or feats! They’re mostly popularity contests and the result of who campaigned the best! And I usually stick to that worldview unless, of course, something (the 2009 movie An Education) or someone (Rihanna, Beyoncé, Carly Rae Jepsen) I deeply admire wins, because then, of course, awards do matter and the correct person or movie or album won!
In this case, I think EEAAO has enough things that the Academy likes — a story about America, an under-appreciated star lead in Michelle Yeoh, a great Jamie Lee Curtis performance, etc. — that it can win. I feel like the real story is Yeoh’s shot at Best Actress, as it will be the Academy’s chance to play a part in a feel-good story about feeling seen and people finally recognizing Yeoh’s talent. But again, we don’t need the Oscars to tell us that Yeoh always brings a dignity and sparkling thrill to every character she plays.
Aja: I do think Ke Huy Quan is almost certainly a lock for Supporting Actor, and it seems like his comeback story is destined to be one of the more storied Hollywood glow-ups. If Michelle Yeoh wins, it will be a welcome sign of the Academy’s ongoing shift toward a broader appreciation of a diversity of experience and range of talent; it would be a huge feat to pull off a win over Cate Blanchett in the year of Tár, but if anyone can do it, it’s Yeoh.
Li: There is something kind of delightful to think about how this incredibly imaginative — and at times truly wild — film could win in an awards show that’s been known for being pretty stuffy in the past.
I’m also keeping a close eye on the long-overdue acting awards, while echoing the caveat that Yeoh and Quan don’t need any such recognition to validate their incredible performances. My secret hope is that the actors would perhaps go even further in calling Hollywood out if they win, though fully admire just how gracious they were at the Globes and beyond.
Alissa: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Quan give several speeches (including at the awards gala for my own critics’ group awards!) and he fits the comeback narrative perfectly — and on top of it, it would be a delight to see him win. But mostly, I’d take an Everything Everywhere All at Once win as a sign that something — taste, proclivities, signs of what’s “best” — has shifted in the Academy along with the demographic changes.
Whatever the case, though, when I get down about the state of Hollywood (and I do, pretty often), I look at movies like this one as a sign of hope. Even if it wasn’t your favorite film of the year — and it wasn’t for me! — it’s a warm-hearted burst of creativity that’s not quite like anything the business usually churns out, and I’m so glad to see it make it into awards conversations. Like these!
Everything Everywhere All at Once has returned to theaters in advance of the Oscars. It’s also available to stream on Paramount+ or rent or purchase on digital platforms.