TL;DR – Evelyn’s world is already busy enough. So, when the multiverse comes calling and tells her she is the only one that can save it from destruction, all she wants to do is lie down and take a nap. But the universe rarely gives us what we want.
Review (warning: spoilers)
The multiverse is trending. A common technique in sci-fi/fantasy stories, the idea of parallel universes where a person’s life can be altered by different choices and events allows for an infinite source of material. Movies have long since examined these themes from drama flicks like Sliding Doors to sci-fi dystopias like Terminator.
Like many trends that come and go and then come around again, recent productions such as Spider-man: No Way Home, The Adam Project and the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, all explore altering timelines, different pathways and the existence of one’s self in different universes.
However, never before have I seen a film that takes this idea to the extreme as the incredibly ambitious Everything Everywhere All At Once directed and written by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka “Daniels”).
There is a helter-skelter, everything-is-chaos feel from the start as we are introduced to the life of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh). She runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) somewhere in America. She is madly trying to get her tax forms in order as they’re being audited by IRS inspector, Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie-Lee Curtis) while at the same time, trying to prepare breakfast for her father Gong Gong (James Hong), who has flown over from China. They’re also getting ready for a Lunar New Year celebration at the laundromat and Evelyn’s daughter, Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu) arrives on the scene with her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) and is seeking her mother’s approval of the relationship. To top it all off, Waymond has been holding onto divorce papers and has been wanting to discuss their marriage with Evelyn, but she is always too busy.
This opening scene is one version of Evelyn and represents a microcosm of the multiverse chaos that unfolds shortly after. The film is broken up into three parts. Part 1 “Everything”, Part 2 “Everywhere” and Part 3 “All At Once”.
Everything goes into anarchy mode when they have to attend an appointment at the IRS. In a nutshell, a version of Waymond (from a universe called the “Alphaverse”) takes over Waymond and attempts to explain to Evelyn the existence of the multiverse. In the Alphaverse, technology known as “verse-jumping” has been created that allows the user to jump into alternate universes as well as draw from the skills, experience and knowledge of alternate universe selves upon fulfilling specific conditions.
The arrival of Alpha Waymond is to inform Evelyn of a being known as Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Joy from the Alphaverse and was pushed beyond her limits using the verse-jumping technology resulting in her mind being splintered. This Alpha Joy now experiences all universes at the same time and can manipulate matter in any way she chooses.
The comedy and action that ensues in the chaos is nothing short of mind-blowing. One of the funniest mechanics is where I said previously that in order for a person with verse-jumping technology to tap into the skills and knowledge of an alternate self, they need to fulfil specific conditions. The conditions are more outlandish depending on how extreme the alternate universe that is being reached.
For example, there is a version of Evelyn who ends up being a kung-fu master. For the laundromat Evelyn to tap into this version of her and gain these skills she needs to profess her love to the IRS inspector, Deirdre, who at the moment has been taken over by Jobu Tupaki and become a wrestling wrecking machine looking to kill Evelyn and Waymond. It is hilarious watching Evelyn saying, “I love you” at a mind-controlled Deirdre wrestler and trying to mean it.
Another example is Alpha Waymond has to eat a chapstick in order to gain martial arts prowess from an alternate universe of himself. And then there is a sequence where the conditions involve him having to self-inflict four paper cuts before he can tap into the alternate universe. I had tears coming out of my eyes because I was laughing so hard watching Waymond getting a sheet a paper and frantically trying to cut his hand while psycho Deirdre is on the loose and yelling that you never get a paper cut when you want to get one.
But comedy and action are only two elements of this genre defying film. The story also explores themes of relationships/family, existentialism, and the meaning of life. The fact that Jobu Tupaki is Joy demonstrates the fractures in the relationship she has with her mother, and the bigger picture of a generation of teenagers with nihilistic views. The film explores the messiness of family not only with mother and daughter, but also Evelyn’s relationship with her husband along with her relationship with her demanding father.
Everything builds to a bagel induced black hole of oblivion (yes, an actual bagel created by Jobu Tupaki containing all the versions of Joy and her emotions), and Evelyn teetering on a knife’s edge when she sees that the only way to confront Jobu is to splinter her mind so she can experience all universes everywhere all at once also.
Evelyn looks like she is convinced by Jobu that life is meaningless especially when the vast multiverse that she experiences all at once demonstrates that there isn’t any purpose. Just when they are about to enter the bagel of self-destruction, Evelyn hears Waymond.
This was unexpected. Evelyn is very much the alpha female in the family and Waymond appears the emasculated and tentative husband. But there is strength and integrity in Waymond simmering beneath the surface that shows his love for Evelyn and why he has always been by her side. Even when the contemplation of divorce papers comes to the fore, he does not want to actually divorce her. He simply wants to demonstrate the dire state their marriage is in and wants to talk and be heard. It is Waymond that speaks to Evelyn who is about to step into the void and talks of kindness and hope. In turn, Evelyn tells Jobu that she is not alone and she will always be with her.
The reconciliation is not all tied up in a neat bow. Life is messy regardless of which universe you’re in, and when the laundromat version of Joy confronts her mother and unleashes a torrent of emotion, it is representative of all the challenges those teenage years represent, especially when living in an environment where the teenager feels they are not being heard by their parents. The drama from these connections is as integral as the comedy and action if not more and transcends the sci-fi genre.
The acting is a tour de force. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan demonstrate they can be in roles that are not boxed in by cultural stereotypes. Their comic timing is brilliant, but their ability to draw out empathy even when the situation is ludicrous is a greater feat. Likewise, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong and Stephanie Hsu wring out every bit of their roles.
One of the most original films I have ever seen. I have no idea how the Daniels will be able to create a film any better than this one.
10 out of 10