Everything Everywhere All at Once and Playing with Genre
Warning: Spoilers ahead. You can also watch the video version.
Everything Everywhere All at Once just won, like, all the awards. You may have heard. What you might not realize is that some people are unhappy about it. As one Rotten Tomatoes user wrote:
“I can’t believe this movie won so many awards. Definitely one of the stupidest and worst movies I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.”
-Kathy P, March 15, 2023
Kathy is certainly entitled to her opinion, but let’s be real: the movie won seven Oscars, five Critics' Choice Movie Awards, seven Independent Spirit Awards, two Golden Globes, and a BAFTA award, among others. Its critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is in the mid 90s, and its audience score is less than 10 percent lower. It also grossed more than $100 million at the box office. Clearly, the filmmakers did something right.
So, what was it? What did they do that worked so well? I believe it’s the same thing that makes the movie difficult for some people to enjoy, and that is genre hopping.
Genre describes the conventions stories use to build a contract with the audience; these conventions offer a promise about what to expect. When we go to see an action movie, we know the stakes will be life and death. When we pick up a romance novel, we know the lovers will split up but eventually reconcile.
A lot of stories jump between two or three genres, but even with that low number, doing so carries an element of risk because subverting audience expectations can upset people. Imagine if you were promised a lighthearted romcom and got a grimdark war epic instead. You’d probably feel disoriented or unsatisfied. You might even walk out on the story.
Everything Everywhere All at Once hops between genres . . . a lot. The film starts out as a straightforward drama involving the struggles of a family of immigrants living in America, but it quickly morphs into a science-fiction action thriller. During its two-hour-plus runtime, it also leaps (sometimes at light speed) between comedy, horror, and romance. That’s a lot of risk, and yet the filmmakers transition between these disparate genres with ease.
How do they do it? By skillfully blending the conventions of their chosen genres. Before I break down how they do that, let’s look at the ways they represent so many different kinds of stories.
Drama: From the start, we see members of a family who are fighting not only to exist in the modern world but also to connect with one another in meaningful ways.
Comedy: Despite the dramatic setup, the film soon recontextualizes bizarre actions as the catalysts for action sequences. This includes weaponizing fanny packs, butt plugs, and giant dildos. The big bad also creates an evil, universe-ending Everything Bagel. Did I mention the movie is kind of silly?
Action: The fight scenes I mentioned are stylish and graceful despite (or perhaps because of) the ridiculous comedy. The choreography, camerawork, editing, and sound design are all top notch.
Horror/science fiction: About 30 minutes into the movie, Jamie Lee Curtis turns into Michael Myers from Halloween. Not literally, but she staples a post-it to her forehead and can suddenly fight like a coked up polar bear. And she’s not even the scariest character in the movie.
Romance: The love story between Evelyn and her husband, the soft-spoken Waymond, is surprisingly touching, even though there’s an alternate universe in the film where everyone has hot dog hands and pukes mustard. Yep, a movie containing mystery meat fingers just won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I love it. It almost makes up for the controversy surrounding the Best Supporting Actress award, which probably should’ve gone to Stephanie Hsu.
You might be wondering how it’s possible to mix so many genres without the story completely falling apart, and you’d be right to wonder. I think that is precisely why some people dislike this movie. Despite its heartfelt writing and stellar performances, they can’t move past the constant genre-hopping, which practically requires a willingness to indulge in over-the-top silliness. And that’s fine. The movie breaks a social contract, and the hatred from a vocal minority is the consequence.
But the shock of those subverted expectations is also why some people love it so much. Whether you think the story “works” is a matter of opinion, but it’s clear that Everything Everywhere All at Once resonated with a lot of people regardless.
I believe it achieved this by satisfying the major conventions of its many genres. Conventions are how we frame and shape genre, and they mostly rely on setup and payoff. First, you use conventions to set up what kind of story you want to tell, and then you follow through on those conventions to reach a logical payoff for that type of story.
Let’s look at the major genres again to figure out how Everything Everywhere All at Once uses conventions to set up its premise and then pays them off with conclusions that make a weird sort of sense.
Drama: At the beginning, the movie is a simple family drama. It sets the tone by showing us Evelyn, played brilliantly by Michelle Yeoh, working on her taxes. The members of her family are struggling to communicate, but by the end, they’ve pulled themselves back from the brink and learned to love one another again.
Comedy: An undercurrent of absurd humor runs throughout the film. We see it first a few minutes in, when Waymond starts cartwheeling over laundry machines like a ninja on the CCTV screens. But even at its darkest points, the movie is self-aware enough to deliver hilarious yet heartwarming payoffs using the liberal application of googly eyes.
Action: The movie first delivers on its multiverse-hopping premise when Waymond whips off his fanny pack and starts kicking ass, and it keeps building to more impressive action sequences throughout, culminating in an epic fight sequence that involves a heaping portion of comedy, drama, and romance as well.
Horror/science fiction: In one scene near the climax, two characters transform into rocks and have a psychic conversation about the nature of the universe.
Romance: The movie establishes from the start that its primary romantic relationship—between Evelyn and Waymond—is on the rocks. And yet he’s the one who saves her from succumbing to the despair of being unable to stop traversing the multiverse.
The result of all this genre-smashing is a beautiful, compelling, funny film about the power of forging human connections despite overwhelming challenges, such as the seemingly infinite chasms between our individual realities. Whether you like it or not, this story couldn’t have been told in any other way. It hops genres the way its characters hop universes, which makes it all the more impressive that its makers tried—and succeeded—to create something so nuanced and complex.
So, when you’re writing, go ahead and play with genres. It’s a risk, sure, and you might piss some people off. But you might also win everything, everywhere, all at once.