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Dir: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert. Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis. 15, 139 minutes.
The multiverse is having a moment. I’m undecided on whether the decision to chase up Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with Everything Everywhere All at Once – a film grounded in the same concept of parallel realities, yet made with a fraction of the budget – is foolhardy or ingenious. Either way, David has shown Goliath how it’s done. While Marvel executives huddle around conference tables, braiding together franchises in a grand show of corporate synergy, here’s a film that really understands what the infinite might look like.
Everything Everywhere All at Once exists in the outer wilds of the imagination, in the realm of lucid dreaming and liminal spaces. It bounces off familiar representations of altered states, whether it be The Matrix or the phantasmical films of Michel Gondry, while feeling entirely unclassifiable. It’s both proudly puerile, with a running joke about butt plugs, and breathlessly sincere about the daily toil of intergenerational trauma. That curious mixture of tonal extremes will already be familiar to fans of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, otherwise known as The Daniels. Following the success of their music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” – in which a guy smashes crotch-first through several storeys of an apartment building – they made their debut feature Swiss Army Man (2016) about the tender relationship between the survivor of a shipwreck and a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. With Everything Everywhere All at Once, these filmmakers have fully hit their stride.
At the heart of its story is an ordinary woman, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh). In fact, she’s the most ordinary of women, quietly running a laundromat in the Simi Valley, California, with her sweet, sprightly husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Tensions are high. Evelyn’s father (James Hong) is visiting from China and has always looked down on her decision to marry Waymond and move to America. Her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), has brought her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) along, already bitter in the knowledge that her mother is about to shove her back in the closet. Oh, and Evelyn’s being audited. “From a stack of receipts, I can trace the ups and downs of your life,” her assigned IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis, delightfully and manically mundane) warns. “And it does not look good.”
Then, out of the blue, a version of Waymond from somewhere called the “Alphaverse” commandeers her husband’s body in order to tell her that she’s the key to saving all reality. Out of all the Evelyns that exist, branching off from every choice she’s ever made, this Evelyn has fared the worst. That means she’s the only one who still has unfulfilled potential. What a beautiful way to look at the world – that a life in stasis is really one of bottomless possibility. We meet quite a few of the other Evelyns: a martial arts star who could easily be Yeoh herself (spot footage of the actor on the Crazy Rich Asians red carpet), a dominatrix, a piñata, a Chinese opera singer, a hibachi chef and a woman with hot dogs for hands. Aided by the freneticism of Larkin Seiple’s cinematography and Paul Rogers’s editing, we shuffle through Evelyns like cards in a deck. There’s an exquisitely constructed homage to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, alongside full-blown fight scenes choreographed by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Brian and Andy Le.
To elaborate any more on the plot would spoil the fun, but the power packed into Everything Everywhere’s punch is that all this elaborate chaos has a distinct purpose to it. The Daniels have fully captured the fractured feeling of modern existence, of never quite being at the wheel of your own life. Evelyn’s task, she’s told, is to “take us back to how it’s supposed to be”. But that proves to be an empty phrase. If every path in life can live side by side, who’s to say any of them is the right one? It’s the sort of philosophy that needs to be tethered to something forceful and absolute – that’s Yeoh, who moves through Everything Everywhere All at Once like she could hold the entire film in the palm of her hand.
You could argue the actor, in a way, has lived a few different lives herself: as the Hong Kong action star in Heroic Trio (1993); the Bond girl of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); the romcom matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians (2018). But the Evelyns she plays aren’t parodies or costumes; they are a set of emotions placed on a gradient. To say this is a showcase for her talent almost feels like an understatement – the same can be said for Quan, who played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Data in The Goonies (1985) and then learned the hard lesson of how little Hollywood cares for the accomplishments of Asian actors. If the industry has really changed for the better, this return to acting should mark the first role of many.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film of such much-ness. Rich performances (Hong and Hsu should also be included here) collide with big ideas, wrapped in a nuanced understanding of how we treat each other. And there are butt jokes. So many wonderful, dumb butt jokes. What more could you ask for?
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is in UK cinemas from Friday 13 May