Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a story featuring a reluctant superhero who is forced to confront a villain who threatens the multiverse with imminent destruction.  Sound familiar?  No, this movie isn’t set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Instead, it features Evelyn (Michelle Yeho), a put-upon proprietor of a failing coin laundromat.  Her incredibly kind husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) believes he’s the reason she’s miserable and files for divorce.  Her angry and distraught daughter wants Evelyn to recognize she’s a lesbian.  Adding insult to injury, Evelyn and Waymond are facing an IRS audit.  While trying to explain Evelyn’s haphazard bookkeeping to cheerless auditor Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn learns via her husband’s counterpart in the alpha verse that not only do multiple parallel universes exist, but that a malevolent being named Tupaki threatens to destroy it and everything with it.  Through the copious use of verse jumping, Evelyn learns kung fu (among other skills) so that she can defeat Jobu and her nefarious, multiverse-annihilating everything bagel.

Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a. Daniels) gleefully combine several genres and several of their favorite movies in a blender and produce what is decidedly a singular cinematic achievement.  The movie is a lot of fun and features excellent acting throughout, non-stop action and a heavy dose of humor (slapstick and otherwise).  The movie is an extremely busy one, and at times overwhelms when it should pause to allow the audience to take in and appreciate not only the incredibly bizarre visuals but the powerful dramatic moments as well.  The movie is caffeine-added to a fault, in a bouncy castle filled with rubber balls kind of way.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for adventurous types, there’s plenty to enjoy here.  Just be sure to strap yourself in and prepare yourself for a wild ride.  Recommended.

Everything Everywhere All at Once (or EEAAO) is the story of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), an unhappy and distracted middle-aged woman who, together with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), are the proprietors of a coin laundry.  When the movie opens Evelyn is confronted with crises on multiple fronts.  Waymond has secretly filed for a divorce in the belief that he is the reason for his wife’s unhappiness.  Her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), frustrated over her mother not acknowledging she is gay, has brought her girlfriend Becky home to force the issue.  Compounding the situation is the arrival of Evelyn’s father, Gong.  Given his advanced age and conservative disposition, Evelyn refuses to broach the topic of Joy being a lesbian with her father around.  On top of all that, Evelyn’s sloppy record-keeping has drawn the attention of the IRS.  She and Waymond have an imminent meeting with auditor Deirdre, an oafish bureaucrat that Waymond attempts to placate with free cookies.  Clearly overwhelmed, Evelyn is doing her best to deal with everything coming at her.  Despite her best intentions, she is failing and flailing.

During their meeting with Deirdre, Waymond passes Evelyn a note (written on the back of his petition for divorce) asking her to meet him at a nearby janitorial closet.  Once there, Waymond confesses that he’s actually the Waymond from the alpha verse (or universe).  He explains that every time a person makes a choice, a new universe is created, resulting in multiple universes that exist in parallel (a.k.a. the multiverse).  Unfortunately, the multiverse is threatened by the evil Jobu Tupaki, who has killed the Alpha Evelyn and intends on killing our universe’s Evelyn.  Complicating matters is that Jobu was/is the Alpha Joy, who experiences the multiverse simultaneously.  (This must be similar to watching every cable channel at once.)  Experiencing everything, everywhere all at once has made her extremely powerful and has also driven her mad.  Borrowing a page from the crazy supervillain handbook, Jobu has created an ominous everything bagel that Alpha Waymond believes Jobu will employ to destroy the multiverse.

To help Evelyn stave off Jobu’s henchmen and (hopefully) defeat Jobu, Alpha Waymond introduces her to the verse-jumping invented in the Alpha Verse.  The technology makes it possible for a person in their current verse to access the memories and skills in another verse.  The technology only activates when the person in question does something unique, like eating a tube of lip balm, snorting a fly, shoving a statue up your bum, and so on.

With every verse jump, Evelyn not only becomes more powerful, but sees how different her life was turned out when she made different choices along the way.  In many of them, she’s achieved success on her own, as a chef, actress or an opera singer.  (Not sure if this counts, but she’s an adept advertising sign twirler in one universe.)  The common thread in all of her other lives is that she has no family.  Her current verse, the one where she is the most miserable and has no discernible skills, is the one instance where she marries Waymond and raises Joy.  

While Eveyn learns about herself through her exposure to her other selves, she attracts the attention of Jobu.  After failing to defeat Evelyn in a kung fu throwdown, Jobu whisks her away to her evil lair.  There, surrounded by her henchmen, Jobu reveals that her evil plan isn’t to destroy Evelyn or the multiverse, but to destroy herself (which ultimately would result in destroying the multiverse).  Shocked by what she hears, Evelyn must find a way to connect to Jobu to save her and the multiverse .

There’s no other way to describe EEAAO except as a singular cinematic experience.  The movie is an audio-visual barrage that is akin to other movies (see below) but at a level unlike anything I’ve seen before.  Glibly, I liken it to listening to an audiobook while riding a roller coaster.

EEAAO is a whirling dervish of activity, one that combines kung fu, science fiction and slapstick comedy in a blender.  I couldn’t help but wonder if filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a. Daniels) locked themselves in a room and subsisted on nothing but Red Bull and gummy bears while writing the screenplay.  I don’t know what films provided inspiration to Danies, but these were the ones I thought of the following while watching it:

  • Big Trouble in Little China
  • The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • 12 Monkeys (or really any Terry Gilliam film)
  • The Matrix
  • The Neverending Story
  • What Dreams May Come
  • Inception (and Tenet to a degree)

On the one hand, I was impressed at how many influences Daniels managed to cram into one movie.  What I found even more impressive is how they’ve used all of them to form a story that is cohesive and uniquely their own.  There were several times when specific elements of the movie felt familiar.  Verse jumping reminded me of The Matrix.  The Everything Bagel is akin to The Nothing in The Neverending Story.  Processing references like these did take me outside of the movie from time to time, but they were momentary distractions at best.  The movie is definitely one that rewards people who are movie fans generally and aficionados in particular.

Overall, I really enjoyed this movie.  I admired its fearlessness, its goofy humanism, its wanton disregard for cinematic convention, its go-for-broke mentality, its kitchen sink artistic sensibility.  Additionally, the movie features excellent performances by all of the actors.

First and foremost is Michelle Yeoh, who gives an incredible, anything goes performance unlike I’ve seen her do before.  Her layered, emotionally honest performance grounds the movie even when chaos rages around her.  Like the best superheroes, Eveyln is an everyday person who is quickly engulfed by supernatural forces, and is surprised to find she has unrealized power to confront her new reality.  This is a familiar template, but Yeoh makes it uniquely her own.  Additionally, Daniels employs our own meta awareness of Yeoh’s cinematic history to enrich the story at hand, so that we anticipate her becoming a powerful martial arts warrior before too long.  (That is the role she played in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)).  Coupled with her role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Yeoh is experiencing quite a career resurgence in her late fifties.

Speaking of career resurgences, Ke Huy Quan is excellent as Waymond.  In our universe, he’s kind to a fault, a person without a violent or angry bone in his body.  In the alpha verse, he’s a steely revolutionary desperately trying to fend off Jobu and save the multiverse.  Quan’s complex and emotionally resonating  performance is even more amazing when you consider that he’s only acted sporadically since he was a child actor since appearing in The Goonies (1985) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).  Hollywood loves a good comeback story, so I’m thinking he’ll get some recognition next awards season for sure.

I’ve only previously seen Stephanie Hsu in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and she also delivers a standout supporting performance.  Like Quan, she plays a dual role, as the emotionally torn Joy and the all-powerful Jobu.  The two characters couldn’t be more dissimilar, but Hsu’s portrayal of them was so expertly done I had no problem believing that they were the same person.

Last but not least, Jamie Lee Curtis is simply hilarious as Deidre.  I can’t remember a funnier performance by her since True Lies (1994).  (She did have one funny scene in Knives Out, but her performance was a glorified cameo.)  The character could easily have been overwhelmingly  repulsive, but Curtis, veteran actor that she is, brings out the humanity in Deidre.  She may be annoying, blunt and a bit of a slob, but she’s just doing her job.  Her role just happens to be one that the rest of humanity never wants any contact with.

While I really enjoyed EEAAO, I did have a few issues with it.  First, the movie’s breakneck pace never gives the viewer the opportunity to mentally catch their breath and appreciate everything that is being thrown at them.  There were several times when I wanted a moment to visually take in a scene or reflect on what a character had just said, but the film’s whirligig aesthetic never allowed for a moment’s rest.

For example, there were two moments during the film’s climactic final act when the beautiful humanity of what the characters were expressing was almost completely overpowered by the continual visual cacophony.  First there was Waymond’s monologue about being kind when faced with uncertainty and fear.  Second was Joy’s wish for her mother to let her go.  In both cases, the movie should have turned down the visual volume dramatically so that these moments could achieve a weightier dramatic impact than they did.  The fact that both scenes are as powerful as they are speaks to just how good the actors are, that they can generate such a powerful emotional response in spite of the constant Sturm und Drang they were required to act in.

There are several directors who I feel are direct antecedents to what the Daniels are striving for  cinematically.  While watching EEAAO, I couldn’t help but think of Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, Brazil, Baron Munchausen), Christopher Nolan (Inception and Tenet) and Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  Putting aside Nolan and Gondry for the moment, Gilliam’s work seems the most analogous, given his propensity for narratives set in chaotic universes that feature time-travel, slapstick and pathos.  In Gilliam’s best work, he effectively augments the outlandish, the fantastical and the farcical elements of the story with an underlying humanity, so that the former never outweighs the later.

In 12 Monkeys, for example, Bruce Willis’ performance as James Cole always has the breathing room necessary to maintain an emotional connection with the audience, even though he’s repeatedly thrown back-and-forth through time.  With EEAAO, I kept getting the feeling that the Daniels were not completely comfortable with the moments where the characters were completely vulnerable.  Instead of letting those emotionally naked scenes play out naturally, they distort and fragment them.  (Again, I’m not saying that those scenes aren’t powerful, just that they could have been even more so.)  Given the success of this movie, however, I believe that Daniels, as artists, will take another step forward with their next movie.  Perhaps then they will feel equally comfortable with both the kinetic and dramatic aspects of filmmaking.

The second issue I have is that the Daniels need to be brutally honest with themselves on what they should and what they should not include in their movies.  Just because they can include everything and anything they want in their movie doesn’t mean they should.  At 2:20, the movie felt overstuffed.  Several of their attempts at slapstick comedy–in particular the universe where everyone has hot dogs for hands and the Raccaccoonie universe, were just weird and didn’t add anything to the overall narrative.  They could have been excised and the movie would have been just as successful.

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