Everything everywhere all at once is as damning as its title suggests. The new feature from directors known as The Daniels, aka Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheiner, the guys who made the movie Daniel Radcliffe-as-a-farting-corpse Swiss army man— is an intentionally overloaded journey through the multiverse where Michelle Yeoh plays multiple versions of Evelyn Wang in a tour de force performance that uses every tool in her considerable arsenal. It’s a movie that hits you at a mile a minute for over two hours with fun mirror pop culture references, goofy moments, goofy costumes, and blistering action. But beneath all the flashes and noise, there is a deeply sweet story about the Chinese immigrant experience and how mothers project their own burdens onto their daughters.
As the film opens, Evelyn is an exhausted wife and mother who runs a laundromat. She prepares for the double stress of being audited by the IRS and a Chinese New Year party attended by her wheelchair-bound father who has traveled from his home country for the occasion. The first act is an anxious whirlwind of paperwork and panic. Evelyn ignores the pleas of her kind husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and the wishes of her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who wants to introduce her grandfather (James Hong) to his longtime girlfriend. Yeoh’s weariness is apparent on his face as Evelyn rushes into her domain. In an effort to keep everything under control, she invariably disappoints everyone closest to her. Waymond tries to serve her divorce papers; Joy is crying in her car.
But then, in the elevator en route to meet a surly listener (Jamie Lee Curtis in a deliberately devastating wig), Waymond transforms. Suddenly, sweet Waymond Evelyn knows how to concentrate, gives her an earpiece and introduces her to the concept of the multiverse. It’s about a Waymond from a different version of reality who traveled through time and space to find this Evelyn, the only Evelyn who can save the world from an evil force called Jobu Tobacky. To battle Jobu and his henchmen, Evelyn must “jump to” by doing something bizarre, such as eating a stick of lip balm or drinking an orange soda, to take on the powers of the other Evelyns. When Evelyn comes to terms with the skills of her many selves, she also gets a glimpse of what their lives could have been like, answering questions like who she might have become if she hadn’t gone to America with Waymond or had lived in a world where everyone had hot dog fingers.
The extreme awkwardness of Evelyn’s adventure is balanced by the meat of the story the Daniels tell. As Evelyn attempts to escape the forces of Jobu, she must also consider the lives she could have led, those where she did not have the specific hardships of being a working-class immigrant to the United States. . At the same time, she must decide which part of her real life she wants to protect. Does all this mean nothing? Or all of it ?
It’s a showcase for Yeoh, who both does transformational work and riffs on his iconic status. The first Evelyn we meet – dull, weary – is drawn to the glamor of the timeline where she’s a kung fu movie star with a career not unlike that of Yeoh. (The Daniels even include a photo of what is very clearly the boobies rich asian red carpet.) And Yeoh is only half of the equation.
The work of Ke Huy Quan, best known for his roles as a child actor in The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At one point, Waymond is Evelyn’s sweet and unassuming husband; in another, he is a sex symbol from a Wong Kar Wai film. In the cast of Quan, whose most famous roles are intertwined with insidious Asian stereotypes of the 80s, The Daniels comments and subverts expectations, offering not only an existential journey but also a meta-commentary on the types of roles that the public awaits Asian actors, on screen and in society. Quan and Yeoh are both gorgeous – and seem to be having the time of their lives – slipping in and out of versions of their characters, and Hsu, a Broadway star making a huge impact in his first major film role, matches to their energy. (To say too much about his character would be a spoiler.)
The Daniels, who hail from the world of music videos, lean into a stylistic maximalism that makes it look like confetti is flying off the screen as Evelyn is tossed between the characters, fighting non-stop throughout. Lasting nearly two and a half hours, Everything everywhere all at once can feel unrelenting at times, but the directors pause for the emotional beats that lend weight to the chaos. The noise is part of the experience, but the pure creativity is the reward.