I loved Everything Everywhere All At Once with my whole heart. I haven’t walked out of a theater buzzing with exhilaration this hard since the first time I saw Sorry To Bother You — that buzz of excitement that comes from seeing something completely new, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Yet I’ve been struggling with how to even begin this review of Everything Everywhere All At Once for the last 12 hours, because… almost every opening line I came up with sounded insulting, even when I meant it as a compliment. For example: “The first thing you need to understand about Everything Everywhere All At Once is that it really is exactly that — or at least it’s Almost Everything, All Over The Place, A Lot.” Sounds super bitchy, right? When all I mean is that the movie is emphatically, beautifully too much, only without the “too.” It’s just… much. So much! The title isn’t a preface for the plot so much as an explanation of the approach.
Or how about: “Everything Everywhere All At Once is exactly the sort of sophomore film you’d expect from the guys who made the heartfelt movie about Harry Potter’s farting corpse.” If you are amongst the fans who recognized the Daniels’s first film, Swiss Army Man, for what it is — a touching exploration of loneliness, and the transformational freedom that can be found in letting others into your world — then that line might make a sort of sense to you. But for the viewers who couldn’t see beyond the farts, or didn’t see that THE FARTS were necessary to THE MESSAGE, then this could be proof that Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t the film for you. Yet to divorce the two films from each other is to do each a disservice, because what the Daniels have done with Everything Everywhere All At Once is built on the foundation of their first film in the most meaningful way. Here they’re proving they have a method, a style, a viewpoint, and it’s simple: Life is beautiful, and life is messy, and ergo mess is beautiful. Their films are love letters to the gross and the weird, not as elements to illuminate the good but as elements that ARE good. Swiss Army Man wasn’t touching in spite of the farts but because of them, and likewise Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t profound in spite of the hot dog fingers and googly eyes and dildos and Chekhov’s butt plugs but because of them. It’s all a matter of perspective. Especially the googly eyes.
In Everything Everywhere All At Once Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, the owner of a laundromat that’s facing foreclosure. Her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) wants to talk with her about divorce, her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has a girlfriend she wants her mother to accept, and meanwhile, Evelyn’s father Gong Gong (James Hong) has just arrived from China and doesn’t approve of any of it — the husband, the daughter, the laundromat, or Evelyn. To top it all off, she has to meet with a sanctimonious IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) and save her business on the same day she’s supposed to be throwing a Chinese New Year party. It’s all, you know, too much, and that’s before her husband suddenly shifts into a universe-hopping alternate version of himself and tells Evelyn she’s the Chosen One, the last hope of saving a multiverse on the brink of destruction. What makes this Evelyn so unique is that everything in her life has gone wrong. If the multiverse is built on choices, each one branching in subtle ways until they add up to wholly different realities, then this Evelyn is the version of herself that seems to have made the worst possible choice at every juncture, squandering all of her potential and winding up at a dissatisfying dead end. But because she never followed her dreams — because she squandered her potential — it means she’s the one Evelyn who can access the talents of all the other Evelyns: Kung Fu Evelyn, Singer Evelyn, Chef Evelyn, even Hot Dog Fingers Evelyn (some realities are more different than others!). With the survival of every reality at stake, Evelyn’s weakness is about to become her strength. As long as she can keep her mind from breaking in the attempt.
Unlike The Matrix, where Neo can just download a new skillset into his mind, Evelyn has to perform a ridiculous, statistically improbable action like blowing into someone’s nose or putting her shoes on the wrong feet in order to tap into her other selves — and she doesn’t just get their talents, she sees their whole lives. She witnesses every divergence they took that she didn’t. She changes her perspective. At first, Evelyn is enthralled by these visions of herself as a success, until she recognizes that they aren’t necessarily any happier than she is. Kung Fu Evelyn is a star (she’s… well, she’s Michelle Yeoh), but she sacrificed her romance with Waymond and never had Joy. Chef Evelyn is a side character in her rival’s Disney movie. Singer Evelyn has her father’s love but is under his control. When everything is possible, does any of it matter?
That’s what the big multiversal threat would like to know. Jobu Tupacki has become obsessed with the idea of finding meaning in this great big mess of Everything, and hasn’t had much luck. Her perspective has been blown so wide that life has lost all consequence, and in turn she has transformed her nihilism into a (rather hilarious) weapon. Jobu also happens to be a (the?) multiversal version of Joy, the ultimate expression of the pain of Joy’s fraught relationship with Evelyn, stomping a swath of destruction through every reality where her mother’s approval remains just beyond her grasp.
Is Evelyn’s mission to defeat her daughter, or to save her? And what does it mean for all the realities if Evelyn herself is starting to agree with Jobu? What if… life is meaningless?
Don’t worry, Everything Everywhere All At Once is the most hopelessly optimistic film about failure you can imagine. There isn’t an ounce of cynicism here to sharpen its earnest philosophical ponderings, and typically yeah, I would mean that as an insult, but I don’t. It’s as refreshing and uninhibited as an unselfconscious fart from a guy who learned how to enjoy life from a corpse. The Daniels — the working name for the creative partnership of writers/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — seem to have taken the lesson of their first film to heart and let it all hang out with this second one. Even when the film’s philosophy threatens to be too broad at times, the Daniels bring it back into focus with the surprising specificity of their filmmaking. They push the boundaries of how films can work — how many storylines audiences can follow and how far the logical connective tissue between them can be threaded and stretched before we all get lost. There’s a moment that starts as a simple joke, seemingly at Evelyn’s expense — her grasp of English causing her to mistake one type of rodent for another — only to be transformed into its own reality where Evelyn is right, a whole subplot starring Harry Shum Jr. that builds to its own hilarious and heartfelt climax as essential as anything else in the movie. The Daniels take the endless possibilities of a multiverse and systematically transform each of them from a gag into something singularly important, as touching as all the rest, until you’re watching a reality where Evelyn is a rock and crying over it.
They started working on this ambitious script back in 2016, though I’m curious how much it shifted once the cast came on board because it feels like the roles of Evelyn and Waymond were written for Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan alone. In their own ways, both actors have lived a hundred lives over the course of their careers. Yeoh was a ballerina turned beauty queen, who then parlayed her athleticism into a career in Hong Kong martial arts films where she did her own stunts, and eventually became a Bond Girl. She’s been acting for almost 40 years, but even she told GQ that no other movie has given her the opportunity to show off everything she’s capable of — “To be funny, to be real, to be sad. Finally somebody understood that I can do all these things.”
Ke Huy Quan has had a very different path to this point, but no less diverse. He was 12 when he was cast as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and immediately followed it up as Data in The Goonies. He was, for a moment, the most recognizable Asian in Hollywood. But in an industry that makes it notoriously difficult for child actors to mature into adult roles, and for Asian actors to get cast at all, he found himself struggling on both fronts. So he went to film school and transitioned to working behind the scenes. He was an assistant stunt choreographer on X-Men, and the assistant director on Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046! Then he saw Crazy Rich Asians and realized there might be roles for actors like him after all, so he got himself a new agent and the first script he received was Everything Everywhere All At Once — a movie that, in one reality, has him playing a very Wong Kar-Wai-esque romantic character opposite a star of Crazy Rich Asians.
I haven’t said a lot about his character, Waymond, yet because he is the heart and soul of the movie, and talking about him feels like a bigger spoiler to me than any version of Evelyn. He gets to show off some serious fighting chops (with a fanny pack, no less!), he gets to be funny and sweet and capable and sad, but mostly he’ll make you fall in love with him because that’s his role in this story. He’s the weak husband Evelyn is sick of until she changes her perspective and realizes his weakness is his strength.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a specifically multigenerational Asian-American story of mothers and fathers and children, of expectation and disappointment, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a universal story of acceptance and change. It depends on your perspective. The movie is a sci-fi flick, a martial arts epic, a family drama, a comedy. It’s gross and absurd, smart and silly, heart-breaking and heart-warming — it’s everything in juxtaposition, seamlessly working together at the same time. It’s whatever you want it to be, whatever you choose to focus on, because that’s what multiverses are. They’re choices. And if this movie seems too confusing or too meaningless for you, then all you have to do is focus on the bits that matter most. Choose what makes you happy.
For me, happiness is finding a movie that can make me cry over actual talking rocks because this movie really does have Everything.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is in theaters now, and for additional reading, I highly recommend checking our friend Kristy Puchko’s interview with the Daniels over on Mashable, where she unpacks their transformational use of a particular one-hit-wonder throughout the film.
Header Image Source: A24 (via YouTube)