"...an all-out assault of metaphysical possibility"

The Only Multi-Verse Movie Anyone Needs to See

(060922) We never know what to expect in Everything Everywhere All at Once, even after the film firmly establishes that just about anything and everything could happen in it. The irony of movies that try so hard to be weird, different, and unpredictable is how often the attempt to offer surprise after surprise becomes a predictable routine, but that's not the case with co-writers/co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's all-out assault of metaphysical possibility.

Their film does constantly, consistently surprise—not only because of the seemingly endless degree of imagination on display in its universe-jumping plot, but also on account of how deftly the filmmaking duo shift and balance the story's seemingly disparate tones. It's the sort of film that sets out to break your brain, finds an assortment of ways to break your heart in the process, and somehow pieces both together again with such skill of craft and narrative that it almost feels like a bit of a miracle. The Daniels, as Kwan and Scheinert stylize themselves as a pair, pull off all of these tricks so well that the whole process also feels effortless.

Everything seems normal, mundane, and, well, kind of boring at the start. We meet a family of three, who live above and run a Laundromat in some unspecified American city, and while our first introduction to the clan is the reflection of a happy karaoke sing-along, the truth of it is far less content. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan-Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) are very effective and affecting in playing various shades of kindness. They came from China to pursue a life together and achieve some form of the American Dream: own the business. Unfortunately, theirs in some significant trouble-the IRS is auditing the business' recent tax returns, and this day is the make-or-break one for the couple and the career they've built.

On top of that, Evelyn is busy putting together a Chinese New Year party for the local community, and the event has to be as perfect as it can be—and probably better—because Evelyn's father Gong Gong (James Hong) has flown in from China. The two had a falling out years and years ago, on account of Evelyn running off with Waymond, and their relationship has never really recovered.

Adding to those complications, Evelyn has to figure out how to handle the subject of her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, silently pained and, later, something else entirely) and the daughter's long-term girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) with Gong Gong. Evelyn doesn't judge her daughter for that, but her father is of an older, less-understanding generation.

The debate, of course, shows that Evelyn does judge, is disappointed in, and/or does have an inherent problem with Joy. On the other hand, maybe that attitude is the only way the mother knows to show that she cares—just like the way she says good-bye to Joy by saying the young woman is "getting fat," only to have a look of disappointment in herself for not thinking of or even knowing another way to say what she wants to.
Here, perhaps, is the best place to discuss Yeoh's performance, which offers all of these little details of quiet regret and resentment, as well as an overall sense of disillusionment with what she and her life have become, over the course of so many small letdowns that have made her see herself as a failure. Yeoh, obviously, is a bona fide international movie star. While this film cleverly acknowledges and plays with that reality in one of the story's multiple realities, it also provides her with a role that's founded upon how much depth and how many layers the actor can bring to a performance, beyond the physical expertise that made her famous—although there's some of that, too.

The plot, well, is best kept as generalized as possible, both because of the exhilaration the repeated surprises bring and because it becomes—to understate matters—a little complicated. Evelyn, Waymond, and Gong Gong arrive at the IRS building with piles of receipts, ready for an appointment with auditor Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis, who's amusing and eventually moving in an unflattering portrayal of bureaucratic malaise). In the elevator, Waymond undergoes a sudden change of personality, puts a couple of devices in Evelyn's ears, and offers her a choice: She can go to the appointment, or she can take a detour to the janitor's closet. Evelyn chooses the former, but in the middle of the meeting, her consciousness is violently split and pulled back into the closet, where a different Waymond awaits.

The short of it is that the other Waymond is from another universe. He believes that the Evelyn in this universe—because, in a depressing sort of cosmic irony, she has accomplished nothing, despite all of her potential—is the key to stopping an evil figure bent on using a mysterious device to destroy the entire fabric of the multi-verse.

Evelyn will have to tap into the skills of her other selves from those other universes to put an end to the villain's plan. That villain, by the way, just happens to be an alternate-universe version of Joy. If all of that off-handed criticism and disappointment feels crushing in a single universe, imagine that effect on the level of multiple universes. Hsu's performance becomes playfully villainous, without losing the ache that drives this character's amalgamated sense of worthlessness.

The long of it is that this setup allows the Daniels to employ and pull from all sorts of gags (from the little moments of characterization, such as Waymond's skillful use of a fanny pack in combat, to absurd touches, such a puppeteer raccoon and an alternative evolutionary thread that resulted in people having fingers like hot dogs) and genres (from martial arts action, to domestic drama, to a green-light-infused noir-like romance, with cinematographer Larkin Seiple showing a chameleonic but unified sense of the visual aesthetic throughout).

While the first half or so is filled with plenty of dynamic and at times hilariously silly action, the Daniels possess just as much dexterity and thought in the plotting and humor of their inter-dimensional tale. Beneath even that, though, is the story's underlying dispute between nihilism (If anything can happen, nothing really matters) and the optimism of finding some meaning in the chaos.

In this regard, Yeoh, Hsu, and Huy Quan become a cohesive glue that tethers the Daniels’ most gonzo gags, with Yeoh making a meal out of playing every flavor of a woman who’s been overlooked and undervalued. Evelyn is tragic and aspirational, silly and heartbreaking, and ultimately undeniable, especially in the final scenes she shares with daughter Joy.

It's the type of film that comes around only once in a blue moon. It’s so brimming with invention and ideas—where even vignettes that last less than a minute could be whole films—that it’s dazzling to behold. Everything Everywhere All At Once truly is the multi-verse of madness that we deserve.

Written & Directed by:    David Kwan and Daniel Scheilnert
Starring:    Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Jaimie Lee Curtis
Released:    3/11/22 (USA)
Length:    139 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for some violence, sexual material, and
Available On:    At press time the film is still playing at some
 Chicago area theatres. Available in English,
 Mandarin, and Cantonese.

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Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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