Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Directors: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Screenwriters: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr, Tallie Medal
The last time Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Daniels) graced us with a film, Paul Dano was surfing on Daniel Radcliffe’s explosively farting corpse in Swiss Army Man. Everything Everywhere All at Once, as an epic inter-dimensional family drama, is certainly a different prospect to that previous quirky black comedy, though rest assured there are still plenty of crude jokes to be found in and amongst all the brain-melting concepts, honest emotionality, and kick-ass martial arts action.
Laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) has a lot going on in her life. Her business, co-owned with her timid husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is struggling and due a potentially disastrous IRS audit by the formidable Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis). At the same time, Evelyn’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is visiting for Chinese New Year with her new girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medal) just as Evelyn’s formidable and traditional father (James Hong) arrives to stay. Family arguments and financial troubles fade in the rear view when an alternate version of Waymond from another dimension appears and informs Evelyn that she, and her countless other iterations, must save the multiverse from a terrible threat.
The sharpest and most astute observation Daniels make in Everything Everywhere is that most of us would see humiliatingly failing at our everyday obligations – your job, your relationships, your taxes – as far scarier prospects than reality itself being on the brink. Who cares if one hundred universes adjacent to mine are about to collapse when I’m really embarrassed and having a miserable time of it here and now? Humans can be selfish and inward-looking creatures by nature after all, unable to see the bigger picture outside of their immediate orbit.
This film is for everyone who feels, like Evelyn, that they have ended up being the most disappointing version of themselves. Every small decision made throughout life has shifted your path, created another universe where things might have gone differently, and many of us live with the regret of what might have been if we had just been bolder, braver, weirder.
Endlessly creative films like this make the most of the madness inherent in the concept of multiverses, and put more mainstream examples like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to shame. Every seemingly throwaway gag in one universe gets a worthwhile payoff in another, and the very idea that there exists a reality the same as ours except for that everyone has hotdogs for fingers is worth the price of admission alone.
Even the obligatory exposition dump where “Alpha Waymond” explains the rules for extra-dimensional travel is turned into a wonderful comic set piece in which Evelyn has to try and process the myriad workings of the multiverse and simultaneously look like she’s paying attention at her audit interview as her mind pings back and forth to a janitor’s closet in another dimension.
During his decades away from acting, Ke Huy Quan (Temple of Doom) worked with Wong Kar-Wai as an assistant director, so appropriately enough in one universe Evelyn and Waymond seem to be living in one of the Hong Kong master’s existential romances (particularly resembling Chungking Express), complete with neon-lit night-time streets, motion blurred crowds and poetic dialogue (“in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you”). It’s great to have Quan back in front of the camera here, and he really proves his versatility as a performer, completely transforming his movements, posture, his very essence, to match the vastly different Waymonds from across the multiverse.
Quan and Stephanie Hsu end up having to do about the same amount of demanding action as Michelle Yeoh, and it’s impressive work from a stunt team reportedly sourced via YouTube. Together they create dynamic and inventive slapstick-inflected fights, like Jackie Chan if he got really into absurdist humour all of a sudden. This is all captured in Larkin Seiple’s (Cop Car; I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore) clean and expressive cinematography, and is enlivened by Son Lux’s peppy score.
It’s Yeoh’s show of course, and her star power radiates like a small sun. The Daniels have fun packing the film with references to her long career in order to provide Evelyn with all the necessary skills to overcome the huge array of challenges she faces (by doing something unexpected or particularly weird, characters are able to borrow talents and abilities from their other selves in other universes). A trippy montage of all the different Evelyns screaming at the camera invites freeze-framing through at a later date to fully appreciate some of the wilder character variations.
This is a really moving family story, particularly pinpointed towards the type of difficult mother-daughter relationship that doesn’t get enough attention in films in general. After Turning Red, this is the second such story in as many months exploring these issues through the lens of Chinese immigrant experiences, and much like how the family dysfunction in Domee Shi’s animated film was expressed through a big old Kaiju battle at its end, here it is the family unit vs the collapse of the multiverse. Parents need to find the balance between making a loving connection and letting go of their children, because as the Daniels theorise, one big thoughtless mistake might have catastrophic consequences for your loved ones in this world and many others. Basically, don’t be a dick to your kids or reality will collapse on you.
Everything Everywhere All at Once cements Daniels as one of the filmmaking partnerships to watch, the directorial duo equally imaginative, technically accomplished and emotionally dialled in to what makes us humans tick. Their second film is far more assured yet just as unique as Swiss Army Man, and has more wit and invention, not to mention doing far more with maybe one-tenth of any major blockbuster’s budget. You’ll find yourself breathless, grinning and with tears running down your cheeks, and you’ll never look at some inanimate objects in quite the same way again.