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Why Everything Everywhere All at Once won ... everything

It’s the end of predictable Oscar winners.

In an image that looks like it’s from a Wong Kar Wai movie, a man in a dashing suit stands and smokes.
Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

They did it. Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once — which, despite its maximalist name, isn’t a “big” movie, like some of its fellow Best Picture nominees — won the big prize. It’s not the sort of film directors make assuming it will win them Best Picture. Weird, sweet, and frenetic, shot on a modest budget and released in the spring, it started slow, with a limited rollout. But once it began picking up steam, it became a force to be reckoned with.

The reason was old-fashioned and simple: word of mouth. Not just casual recommendations, but exuberant word of mouth. People who saw Everything Everywhere tended to at least like it — and, in many cases, fall head over heels for it. It’s a multiverse action comedy-drama about immigrant parents who run a laundromat that’s getting audited by the IRS, but also, there’s an evil bagel. There are martial arts and hot dog fingers; there are rocks with googly eyes; there are tributes to Ratatouille and to the films of Wong Kar Wai and the tuneful stylings of one-hit-wonder band Nine Days. Audiences tweeted and called their moms and brought their friends.

A young woman in a colorful outfit punches and kicks.
Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Importantly, the only place you could see it for a long while was at the movies. In a world where the time from movie screen to streaming is shrinking rapidly, this one waited it out in theaters for a couple months, and that gave the movie plenty of runway for theatrical viewing and box office buzz.

And, oh, it was a great movie to see in a theater. Yes, it’s a spectacle movie, with plenty of effects and fights and fun sound design and, of course, a plot involving the multiverse. But I suspect what Everything Everywhere did best was remind people of the fun of seeing a movie together. To laugh, and also cry together. To shriek and be moved and walk out of the room excited. To maybe see yourself on screen, or to feel your yearnings for an honest connection with your parent or child reflected.

The result was a low- to medium-budget movie (around $15 million) that made a lot of money (over $100 million), and money is the language Hollywood speaks best. But it also had a set of stars with real charisma and a long history in the movies — three of whom won Oscars themselves — and a very enthusiastic fan base and, as many people repeated over the awards season as the film picked up steam, a lot of heart. All this from two guys whose most notable work to date was a lot of music videos and a strangely moving film about a farting corpse.

For a long while, it seemed like it couldn’t win. Academy winners tend to be something like a consensus pick, the movie most people liked a lot, rather than movies that proved divisive. For decades, it’s seemed as though the Academy only favored films that appealed to its mostly older, mostly American, mostly white membership: prestige dramas and historical epics and movies about the movies. A certain kind of film, termed “Oscar bait,” would emerge as the frontrunner early in the fall and stay that way. If you wanted an Oscar, you knew what you had to do.

But this win suggests the era of easily predictable Best Picture winners might really be over. You can learn something about the business from the winners — especially Best Picture. And this is the latest in a line of surprises (like Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and CODA) that defied conventional Oscar wisdom. That is certainly due, in part, to the expanding membership, which is changing the demographics of the Academy, and with it diversifying the tastes of its body.

A family sits across the desk from a woman in what looks like a very boring bureaucratic office.
Tfw you’re getting audited.

Yet that might not be the only reason it won. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Hollywood is in a lot of trouble because, well, it is. The double whammy of the pandemic and the studios’ rush to embrace streaming has left the industry reeling, and even before the last few years, the decision to increasingly focus resources on megabudget global-audience blockbusters has left midbudget movies, the kind that were commonplace 25 years ago, in the lurch. “I have great faith in our stories,” director Daniel Kwan, one-half of the Everything Everywhere directing duo known as Daniels, said in his Best Picture acceptance speech. “These stories have changed my life, and I know that they’ve done that for generations.”

“I know that we’ll get through this,” he said, and if you thought about who he was talking to, you knew what he meant.

So it’s reasonable to wonder if some of the love for Everything Everywhere All at Once from the Academy — which still sees itself, for better or worse, as the guardians and promoters of the American film industry — has to do with excitement. There’s the fun of seeing people like Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, who’ve worked their whole lives with far less recognition than they deserve, win awards all season long. There’s the exhilaration of proving that, contrary to popular Hollywood wisdom, American audiences are ready and eager to see a film that’s partly in Mandarin and Cantonese, that is about an immigrant family, and that doesn’t have a familiar property (or, indeed, anything familiar at all) behind it.

But there’s also the fact that this is a movie with an original, inventive screenplay that mashes up genres and managed to make a huge profit on a modest investment. Wouldn’t that be worth voting for? If a movie like this can earn money and plaudits, does it represent Hollywood’s future, or maybe its salvation?

Hard to say. Everything Everywhere All at Once is so original that the idea of it spawning imitations is dispiriting. And there’s an element to it that feels very much like catching lightning in a bottle.

Still, its seven-Oscar sweep is significant and worthy of pausing on. Sometimes it feels like Hollywood’s hopelessly lost its way. But even if you didn’t really love Everything Everywhere All at Once — or if you’re among its biggest fans or anything in between — its big night at the Oscars could signal good things ahead.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is available to stream on Showtime and to purchase on digital platforms.

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