The multi-verse is at risk of ending – and only a disenchanted woman running a laundromat can save the day in this inventive science-fiction
Director: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Cast: Michelle Yeoh (Evelyn Quan Wang), Stephanie Hsu (Joy Wang), Ke Huy Quan (Waymond Wang), James Hong (Gong Gong), Jamie Lee Curtis (Dierdre Beaubeirdre), Tallie Medel (Becky Sregor), Jenny Slate (Debbie), Harry Shum Jnr (Chad), Biff Wiff (Rick)
Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) has lots on her plate: running her laundromat, completing tax returns for a demanding IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), her waning marriage to goofy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and drifting relationship with lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), not to mention her fear of the disapproval of her demanding father (James Hong) – its Everything Everywhere All at Once as it is: no wonder she struggles to cope when discovering from an alternate version of her husband that she, and she alone, is the key to saving the entire multi-verse from destruction.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an endlessly inventive, imaginative and unique spin on everything from science fiction to philosophy, via the struggles of an immigrant family, familial dynamics and love, death and the universe itself. Did I mention it’s got jokes as well? There isn’t anything quite like EEAAO out there, and if the film does lose energy at an inflated runtime of 145 minutes, at least that’s because it must have been a struggle knowing what to cut.
In the mythology of EEAAO, Evelyn lives in just one of a myriad different realities. Every time a decision is taken, a new reality branches off, spawning innumerable different realities. If Evelyn can imagine it, then somewhere in another universe it happened. She should be a film star, a martial artiste, a chef, a blind singer, a pizza sign spinner…there are realities where mankind never evolved or where they evolved with hot dogs for fingers (a joke the film is a way too pleased with and seriously outstays its welcome).
With some technology from the “Alpha” universe – the first universe to discover alternate realities, where Evelyn and Waymond were pioneering scientists – Evelyn can access the memories and skills of her alternates. All she – and others with the right training and equipment – need to do to become experts at anything in seconds is to build a mental link to that reality by performing a highly improbable act. Whether that’s getting four consecutive papercuts, eating a lipstick, swallowing a model frog or – in a comic highlight – Evelyn fighting to stop an opponent shoving an “Employee of the month” award shaped like a dildo up their bottom in public (you’re not going to see that in many movies) – it’s a brilliant comic device that raises belly laughs a plenty.
EEAAO knocks spots off the recent Doctor Strange sequel (that made almost nothing of its parallel universe concept) by not only presenting radically different worlds (in this universe Evelyn is a pinata! Here she’s a rock!), but also exploring how the path-not-taken can have a mesmerising and inspiring/depressing impact. Evelyn – a woman who (justifiably?) believes she has achieved nothing, is both fascinated or heart-broken to see realities where her accomplishments are titanic. EEAO is superbly thought-provoking when it explores the emotional impact of questioning your choices, when you see turning right rather than left could have been the first step on a path of astonishing glory and success and, even, a completely different personality.
This leads into the film’s second half which, after the comic energy of the first, dives into a philosophical debate about the nature of choice. The villain attempting to destroy reality is motivated not by rage or power-lust – but simply by the fact that jumping to a billion realities has persuaded them it all means nothing. Everything is basically a combination of atoms that, with a few pushes and pulls, can turn from one thing to anything else. This nihilistic view of the world – what does it matter killing one person when there are billions of other versions of them, many of them ‘better’ – and balancing it with a more humanitarian view, becomes the film’s key debate.
It’s also rooted in the film’s opening, which is does a marvellous job of exploring universal family questions, while still grounded in the experience of an immigrant family. Evelyn and Waymond, having moved to America in search of their dreams as youngsters – and wound up running a laundromat – struggle to balance their relationship (her growing irritation at his perpetual optimism, his alienation from her cynicism) and, particularly in Evelyn’s case, understanding her more Westernised daughter. Two generations with very different experiences, struggling to understand each other.
On top of which, many of these problems are universal. Generational conflicts: the grandpa who can’t be told his granddaughter is gay, because her mother isn’t sure how he will react. The mother and daughter who have lost the ability to communicate and reduced to saying increasingly cruel things to each other (there is a shocking moment when Evelyn tries to tell her daughter she loves her but instead chastises her for getting fat). Waymond tries to hold things together but is too gentle and ineffective to do anything.
All of this is bundled together in a film stuffed with inventive and hilarious sequences. There are kick-ass fights (one involving Alpha-Waymond and a fanny-pack – bum-bag to us Brits – which has to be seen to be believed), hilarious segues, brilliant parodies of other films (2001, Ratatouille and In the Mood for Love for starters): and then the film will hit you for six with a genuinely heart-breaking moment. I will say there is almost too much good stuff here – ten minutes trimmed from the film would work wonders, and the continued trips back to Hot Dog Hands reality is a joke stretched to absolute breaking point – but better too much than too little.
At the heart of this fabulous work from The Daniels are superb performances, none more so than a career best turn from Michelle Yeoh. Channelling everything Yeoh has ever done in her career into a single film, she of course can handle the astonishing action but also displays an emotional depth and complexity that will break your heart. She’s bitter and trapped, then will shift on a sixpence to agonised guilt and longing. She’s astonishingly good. There is brilliant support from Hsu as her trapped and troubled daughter and Ke Huy Quan (last seen in The Goonies) is heart-breakingly endearing, funny and wonderfully sweet as her good-natured husband (like Yeoh he also plays multiple variants – from confident to cold and distant). James Hong is wonderful as her austere father and Jamie Lee Curtis is having a ball as a bullying IRS agent turned villain’s heavy.
When the major flaw in the film is that it is too damn long, you know you are onto a good thing. There are more ideas in a few minutes here than in the entire runtime of such things as the Doctor Strange sequel. Superbly directed with wit, energy and compassion by the Daniels and with a career-defining role for Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once is destined to take its place as a year defining cult hit.