Crossing the Hotdog Fingers Threshold: Where Everything Everywhere All At Once derails

Written by Josette Wolthuis and James Davies

In the run-up to award season, arthouse cinema LUX screened Everything Everywhere All At Once as part of its best of 2022 programme. The film has since been nominated for eleven Oscar categories and received many other nominations and awards. After all the rave reviews, our expectations were (admittedly) high, but the only way we could process this film was by writing this review. (Spoilers ahead.)

There is a reason they do not actually make ‘everything bagels’ with everything on it; not all flavours work together. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse film Everything Everywhere All At Once, as the title indicates, is not limited by any such constraints. It does what it says, and that is exactly the problem. The ‘everything bagel’ in the film signifies the black hole where all universes collide. It is also a display of nihilistic excess matching the film’s relentless assault on the audience.

Everything starts off with middle-aged Chinese-American Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) attempting to untangle her laundry, taxes, and relationships. The grounded reality of a struggling laundromat run by a strained immigrant family is a welcome setup, endearing in its portrayal of a house cramped and stifled with layers of life and unexpressed frustration. In this world, Evelyn manages. She manages her upbeat husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, who seems to be sincerely enjoying himself) as he injects unwelcome happiness into every situation. She manages caring for her father. She manages her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) as she crashes into boundaries of family, nationality, and sexuality. But most of all, Evelyn manages her taxes.

At the tax office, while a clerk (Jamie Lee Curtis) assesses the pile of receipts that has become their life, Evelyn is told by her husband from a parallel universe that only she can save the multiverse from the whims of its all-powerful villain, Jobu Tupaki. She can access her alternate selves, borrowing their skills to overcome fights within her own reality. After a few wacky, exaggerated fight scenes and the interdimensional villain, who turns out to be her daughter, turning a policeman to glitter, something crucially changes as Everything crosses what we shall call the hotdog fingers threshold.

When Evelyn accidentally unlocks a dimension in which everyone has hotdogs for fingers, this causes a wave of laughter through our cinema. Shots of Evelyn in the hotdog fingers dimension are intercut with shots of Evelyn in her normal dimension, where she tries to fight would-be multiverse destroyer Joy/Jobu with floppy hands. Everything has undeniable creativity and a sense of humour, but it is not always clear who the film is for. It is certainly not for the older couple behind us, who loudly pack up and leave the cinema when movie characters on a TV screen in the hotdog dimension start passionately smudging each other with mustard and ketchup to eat off each others’ hotdog fingers. This moment crosses a boundary into the silly, the abject, and the immature. Not long after that, other characters deliberately (and quite explicitly) fall backwards onto buttplug-shaped objects to access other dimensions. Albeit arguably in poor taste, this would have been fine in an action comedy, but we are asked at the same time to keep up with a self-aware take on the multiverse plot, to interpret myriad intertextual references to many other films, and to think through the immigrant family’s relationships.

Watching the film from this point on is an exercise in frustration, as a much better film is constantly, tantalisingly out of reach. With each scene, new and fantastic ideas or narratives are presented, only for their awaited arrival to be interrupted by tonal rug-pulls. The setup promises interdimensional, interfamily drama, only for the payoff to be a buttplug joke.

Moreover, the tone spins and shifts as fast as the camera, resulting in a dizzying, almost nauseating emotional kaleidoscope. The film devolves into the oldest archetype of cinema: a zoetrope, a spinning wheel of images, all happening at once, the speed hoping to fool you into thinking you are looking at a moving image. Everything seems to fear slowing down, lest its artifice become evident. This prevents us from being able to appreciate not only the interdimensional family drama but also the comedy worked into many of the later scenes – the reveal of googly eyes on a rock that represents Evelyn in an inhabitable dimension does not receive so much as a giggle from the audience, as the film too quickly cuts between this and other shots, leaving no space to breathe. Evelyn mistaking Ratatouille for Raccacoonie is a great use of the language barrier between Joy as a second-generation Chinese-American and her first-generation parents to achieve comedic effect. This connection between the comedy and the family dynamic is lost however when Raccacoonie is called into actual dimensional existence and turned into another quick gag (we disagree as to whether this is funny or not).

While trying to regain balance after leaving the cinema, it is easy to wonder how the story would have fared in calmer, more mature hands. Excellent ideas (dimension jumping to borrow the skills of other versions of yourself is a scriptwriter’s goldmine) are buried beneath hallucinogenic excess: rapid editing, relentless pace, and misplaced hyperbolic punchlines are tangles easily combed out. Linking content and form can work brilliantly, but this film’s form also doing everything, everywhere, all at once is not in the medium’s best interests; film requires one to do something, somewhere, some of the time.

Like its all-consuming black hole of a bagel, everything in the film drowns everything else out. With an everything bagel like this, you only end up with poor taste.

About the authors: Josette Wolthuis is a Lecturer in Visual Culture in the department with a PhD in Film and Television Studies from the University of Warwick. James Davies holds a BA in Film and Literature from the University of Warwick and is now working as a journalist.

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