A battle to save the multiverse comes down to one woman who’s far too busy with taxes
There are countless indie movies that star A-list talent out there in the world, but perhaps none are so thoroughly bizarre as 2016’s Swiss Army Man starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Dano plays a lonely man trapped on an island who comes across a very flatulent corpse played by Radcliffe. Written and directed by filmmaking duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (who collectively go by Daniels) in their feature debut, the film feels plotless, surreal, and at times even weirdly heartfelt. It’s kind of a modern WTF movie rite of passage.
So it’s a bit surprising to find that Daniels’ second major film, this year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, takes on a bit more of a traditional narrative format; a sort of classic hero’s journey, if you will. Still, the distinct style and offbeat sense of humor that Daniels have cultivated for themselves shines through even more than before, making for a remarkably original and often hilarious action-packed adventure that packs some of the hardest emotional payoffs not just of this year but of the past several years. There’s nothing else quite like it and it’s doubtful that there ever will be again; Daniels have delivered something truly special to the movie landscape here.
Everything Everywhere All at Once tells the story of the Wang family, led by the overworked and exhausted Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh). Along with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), the Wangs lead a simple but stressful life living above the struggling laundromat that they own. The pressure has been on more than usual as of late – an upcoming audit by the IRS threatens the family business, Waymond is seeking divorce after spending too long without the proper love and attention from his wife, Evelyn’s elderly father, Gong Gong (James Hong), who has always disapproved of his daughter’s choices, is now living with the family after moving from China, and Joy has been struggling to connect with her mother, especially when it comes to the acceptance of her and her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel).
True to its title in more ways than one, Everything Everywhere captures the endless overwhelming sense of, well, everything everywhere happening all at once that permeates our metamodern existence. It often feels like there’s just too much going on at all times to keep up with, both in the grand universal sense and the smaller, more personal one. It can feel impossible to maintain relationships, finances, physical and mental health, and everything else that’s required of us in the day-to-day capitalist world. It’s only more so when you’re a person of color and an immigrant, where cultural and generational differences often clash.
For Evelyn, it all comes crashing down within hours of each other. The laundromat needs more upkeep than what she and Waymond can provide, Waymond himself serves her the divorce papers and expresses his unhappiness with her, Joy is nowhere to be found after Evelyn rejects her bid for acceptance, and Gong Gong constantly lets her know just how disappointing she is. When the meeting with IRS inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) goes about as wrong as it can go, Evelyn’s mind begins to fracture. She suddenly discovers that she possesses the ability to jump back and forth between multiple parallel universes and different versions of herself from those universes, where she made different choices in her life.
But this verse-jumping is no vacation. A version of Waymond from a different universe arrives to warn Evelyn of what’s needed of her: The multiverse is under threat by a mysterious and all-powerful being known as Jobu Tupaki, who has created a sort of black hole that could swallow every universe whole. Only Evelyn, particularly the down-on-her-luck version of this specific universe, stands a chance at stopping them. She must tap into the skills of her various alternate selves – including a chef, a movie star, and others – in order to battle the various minions sent after her and save the multiverse.
Everything Everywhere is a wild and freewheeling journey through alternate realities and an exploration of the different paths we take in life; how big and small decisions transform us into the people we become. The action is superb. Inspired by the glory days of Hong Kong cinema, Yeoh and company are given ample opportunity to showcase their martial arts abilities in a series of outstanding and unique action sequences put together by YouTube stars the Martial Club alongside stunt coordinator Timothy Eulich. One standout scene has Quan take on several goons using his fanny pack as a makeshift pair of nunchucks.
Similar to Swiss Army Man, Daniels aren’t always able to hit the nail on the head when it comes to the comedy. Some jokes just aren’t as clever as they seem to think they are, while others are repeated to the point where they lose what initially made them effective. And despite its multiverse-hopping concept, the film doesn’t ever feel quite weird enough. There are a couple of fun exceptions – a universe where people have hot dogs for fingers, another where everyone is a rock – but for the most part Everything Everywhere seems like it has room to go just a bit farther into the bizarre and ridiculous. With that said, when the movie is funny, it’s very funny, especially one bit in particular that’s pretty much the end-all-be-all Ratatouille joke.
Roger Ebert once called movies empathy machines. Of course, all of the best movies do indeed solicit empathy for their characters and their situations; the best movies are the ones that make you really feel something and leave you with that feeling long after the credits roll. Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of those. It’s one of those rare films that’s truly inspiring by its end, one that speaks very much to the moment while still remaining timeless in its ideas and emotion. This is much more than just saving the multiverse – Evelyn’s journey is about the fight against immense nihilism, of accepting one’s fate and finding the bright spots of it, of realizing that your relationships are all you really have and all that really matter.
I want to remember the feeling this movie gave me as I left the theater. It inspires me to be kinder and better in all of my relationships: To my wife, my child, my dog, my parents, my wife’s parents, my friends, my neighbors. Everyone I meet. This is a remarkable and exceptional film, one that audiences will want to take with them for a long time coming. Don’t miss out on it.
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is now playing in theaters.