‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’: A universally expansive miracle
In another universe, I was able to write this review earlier, more thoughtfully, more perfect with a rocket ship for a face and words spiraling out of my slide whistle eyes like bendy straws into a Neapolitan milkshake. In yet another universe, my emotions overwhelmed me into a catatonic writer’s block. But in this universe, I succeeded to start and finish and I am here to tell you Everything Everywhere All At Once loves you. A whole lot.
With their second feature film, the eclectic union of DANIELS (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) midwife an existential action-family drama-comedy chimera with their unique brand of confident absurdity. The film stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, an unflappable matriarch of a struggling laundromat co-piloted by her well-meaning but disrespected husband Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan. Between a crumbling relationship with her daughter Joy (Jennifer Hsu), an impending tax deadline with a brutish IRS inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), and a last ditch effort to save the laundromat by throwing a party, Evelyn is ripped out of her ever-growing dumpster fire by a parallel Waymond that warns her of an even more impending doom that threatens every multiverse.
As multiverse stories go, EEAAO leans in hard on that potential and doesn’t let up. It’s an avalanche of ideas, tropes, and gags that suggest if every outcome is possible, many must be painfully funny. Don’t think too hard about what you see. Come in with less than nothing. You have my permission to go on and trust the film’s ecosystem of contrast. Laugh, cry, scream, look away, feel it all. The emotional wringer can be exhausting, but it’s absolutely worth it.
It’s an outcome that’s only possible with a cast that has volunteered for the unenviable task of becoming ten or more different versions of their characters. Michelle Yeoh, who is known for roles of preeminent command, decidedly bucks this trend and portrays an uncharmed and objective mother, daughter, wife, business owner, and unwitting savior of the multiverse. Yeoh adopts familiar roles such as meta-superstar and martial artist as well as unexpected roles that include Benihana chef and sign spinner. But there is so much more than the skill sharing that makes the performances special. The acting within the acting is what puts so much of the filmmaking into a higher echelon of craft and entertainment.
Ke Huy Quan and Jennifer Hsu as Waymond and Joy Wang, respectively, offer equally compelling foils to Evelyn’s journey. Waymond’s geniality feels warm and genuine to an almost suspicious and concerning degree, but he is given several nuances that are exhilarating, heartbreaking, and heartwarming in equal measure. Meanwhile, Joy’s identity crisis of who she is to herself feels intensely claustrophobic. Juggling obligations between her mother, her partner, and her family are painfully visible and exacerbate the stakes in several pivotal twists. Let me be the first to say, I cannot wait to see what Quan and Hsu do after they have done everything.
For fans of the DANIELS, it’ll be no great surprise that their visual and narrative wit are unparalleled. EEAAO is a perfect distillation of this fun forward approach to framing, foreshadowing, tone, and pacing. If you want to lose the plot and just see something exciting, it’s there for you. The film is also overflowing with a cinephile’s most eccentric fantasies. Thematic match cuts across time and space, easily some of the best fight scenes in the past decade, and mind boggling mixed media are among the things you can expect to see, slack-jawed. It’s all comical, surprising, but never feels random. There is a subtle logic to the chaos, a method to the madness. What you may think is a throwaway joke is actually a clever set up, and there’s no other way to describe these sublime moments other than muah, chef’s kiss.
While the film definitely succeeds moment-to-moment, larger concepts of existence, failure, nihilism, and breaking generational cycles bubble up and encircle everything. The DANIELS have tackled many of these topics in their short films and their previous feature Swiss Army Man (2016), but EEAAO feels the most grounded and considered. Evelyn’s main timeline becomes more coherent as she explores her dozens of multiverse lifepaths. The drama becomes more gripping. The outcomes become more cathartic. While multiverse films trend down a path of tangential sequels and unending cinematic universes, EEAAO is focused on telling this story really well in its own mandala of elements. It succeeds. I’ll reiterate– come in with less than nothing and you will be rewarded.
All right, let’s also talk about that breaking generational cycle thing because I think it’s too important and too specific to just give it a passing mention. I, Justin Ricafort, watched this film as a Filipino American son of immigrants. There’s a billion and one ways to watch this film and enjoy it and move on, but I felt seen and spoken to when watching this film. EEAAO is marketed as an offbeat, oddball film, but it is also an unabashedly Asian American film. As Asian America reaches several inflection points of what it wants to say and be, I find that EEAAO offers something vital to Asian Americans watching with similar backgrounds to mine: permission to exist, to be imaginative–and by extension–imaginatively kind.
The role of the multiverse in this film is on one hand hilarious, and on the other deeply overwhelming to the point of ultimate destruction and disassociation. It becomes a device that speaks to a larger issue of mental health in the Asian American community. Having to perform different parts of ourselves adds to the paranoia of not knowing who to be in our most fearful, vulnerable moments. That cycle is common and deadly. We are primed to imagine the worst because the worst has happened. But what if that imagination can be reverse engineered? The autonomy to be imaginative–to exist–can be transformative and healing. So to see an all Asian cast live multiple lives at once pushes back on the racist stereotype that there is one way to be or should be.
Twenty years ago, Justin Lin’s seminal film Better Luck Tomorrow premiered at Sundance when a man came up during one of the Q&As and asked Lin how he could cast Asian Americans in such a negative light. In response, film critic Roger Ebert notoriously got up and said “Asian Americans have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be.” It’s fitting to say that in this film, they are literally whoever the hell they want to be. In respect to what is possible for Asian Americans on the big screen, the boundaries have been pushed yet again.
Happiness, laughter, forgiveness, and joy can be few and far between, but these are the things that allow us to break away from malaise, cynicism, and create something newer, better, and more free within ourselves. The DANIELS have cherished into existence a balm for the times we’ve suffered through, the times we’re living in, and the times we will inevitably struggle through. Why not be kind? Why not be weird? Why not have fun and enjoy yourself? I have had the extreme fortune to see this film three times before its wide release. Each time I laughed, cheered, and cried with a different combination of people in different places. It has been a long time where a film truly blew me away in all it had to say and all it left me thinking about.
In this universe, you got to the end of this review. Everything Everywhere All At Once is an excellent, generous film that also describes how you will feel once you’ve reached the end of it. It’s a film that loves itself. It’s a film that I predict every middle schooler will whisper about and sneak into. It’s a film that says something to everyone and a little bit extra for Asian Americans. It’s a film made by sheer will, love, and passion. In this universe, the DANIELS are quite literally finding joy in a futile wasteland of doom, and I am so happy that this universe is also mine.
Everything Everywhere All At Once was covered as part of this year’s 2022 SXSW Festival.