Everything Everywhere All At Once
Highly strung Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh) runs a struggling laundromat with her kind-natured husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and faces into the stress of an IRS audit from inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) while caring for her elderly father (James Hong) and largely failing to connect with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). When an alternative version of Waymond from a different universe inhabits his body briefly, it catapults Evelyn into a bizarre adventure, where she must harness powers and abilities from across an infinite number of universes in order to stop “Jobu Tupaki”, a being who aims to destroy the entire multiverse.
I don’t fully know yet if Everything Everywhere All At Once is the best film of the year. Even now, weeks after viewing it, I’m unsure, and might still rank Belfast higher. I might change my mind. Or maybe jump into a universe where it is my #1. But there is no doubt that it is the most unique, freshest and inventive film of the year thus far, and the odds of it losing those titles is rare indeed. Just a short time after Dr Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness did something fun with a similar concept, Everything Everywhere All At Once takes that ball and races into strange places. And what places they are.
How to approach this one? Everything Everywhere All At Once starts off fairly grounded. We get some well put together introductions to our cast, most importantly the put upon Evelyn, a woman at a point in what seems to be a miserable existence where she is questioning every choice she has made in her life thus far. Her husband is secretly planning to seek a divorce, her somewhat estranged father is over from China, her daughter has resentment owing to Evelyn struggling to accept her homosexuality. And then, an audit from the IRS. These early moments are as basic as the film will get, because once the “jumping” starts, things go haywire very quickly.
Once the promise of the premise kicks in (and try not to worry too much about the science behind it all), Everything Everywhere All At Once becomes a mind-bending absurdist comedy, mixed with a drama about existentialism and nihilism. That’s the simplest way to describe a film that deals with such heavy matter as someone so weighed under by the reality of a multiverse that they want to bring an end to the whole thing, that is put part-and-parcel alongside fight sequences where people gain martial arts powers by inserting objects up their anus (seriously). Having done similar work in Swiss Army Man, the “Daniels” – co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – walk a tight line between seriousness and ridiculousness, as Evelyn and her family bounce around an IRS building under siege, jumping from universe to universe in a bid to stop this otherworldly figure that has a deeper connection to Evelyn than she might realise. At the centre of it all seems to be a pretty simple hypothetical: if you could be anyone you wanted to be anywhere you wanted to be, who and where would you choose? And do you think those choices would make you happy?
This could all get very silly if the script went just a little bit of a different way, but Everything Everywhere All At Once avoids this. Instead it anchors itself with a very well-written and presented collection of human dramas, that amount to Evelyn attempting to repair the many relationships in her life, and not always succeeding, even while various shades of madness erupt all around her (that and a comparison between multiverse mayhem and the general insanity of daily life in 2022). So, even while the film does delight in doing outrageous things with the premise, the finer details of which blow by you so fast you are bound to be more than a little confused at points – one of the few criticisms I could make if I am being honest – you could strip all of that away and still find plenty worth enjoying. The cosmic nature of existence and the idea that destroying it all is preferable to living in every moment at the same time is a very grand theme, but in story-telling terms pales in comparison to Evelyn and Waymond coming to terms with whether their marriage has been a good thing for the two of them (or not) or whether Evelyn will ever be able to relate to her daughter. Amid the non-stop visual and comedy punches, a scene where Evelyn callously comments on her daughters weight at a critical moment is as likely to stay with you as anything else.
And all of this comes with a very healthy dose, even an over-riding focus, on humour. And it isn’t just the kind of absurdist stuff that sees people transform from clowns to ballerinas to anything you can think of from frame to frame, but a broad mix of styles, from Alpha Waymond’s assertion that Evelyn is the perfect saviour for mankind because she’s the version of herself that has made the most wrong choices, or a bit involving googly eyes on a rock late-on that had me in stitches. At times the Daniels are trying to shock you (that fight involving butt plugs), at times they are dedicating themselves big time to set-up/punchline jokes (Evelyn’s early misunderstanding of the Pixar movie as “Racoontouille” comes back in a big way later) at others they drift into a very strange wistfulness (a universe where Evelyn and Deirdre are involved in a tragic romance, while having sausages for fingers, is a recurring pop-up). The variety reflects the premise, and constantly keeps you on your toes, and laughing. At times Everything Everywhere All At Once might suffer a bit from the Marvel syndrome of not being able to take even apocalyptic situations seriously, but when the comedy is this good it is difficult to complain.
It might seem odd to say, but Yeoh is appropriately subdued here. Evelyn isn’t a hero on the rise, she’s a middle-aged mother who is exhausted with every aspect of her life, and she brings that to the role. In an amazing moment “Alpha Waymond” asks if she will become the person she needs to be in order to stop Jobu Tupaki or if she would rather just lie on the floor: Yeoh immediately accepts the offer of the floor. Over the course of the expansive runtime, we really do get a feel for a person who just wants to get through another day without an IRS audit becoming life ruining, and could do without different universes butting in. Alongside her is Quan, and it’s a welcome return to the mainstream for him, so long after his debut with Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. The beating heart of the film, his Waymond is a shining light of eternal positivity and hope in a humdrum and frequently hopeless universe, and the connection between this character and Evelyn is one of the best explored romantic plotlines I have seen in a while. And then there’s Hsu, who serves as both daughter and MacGuffin all at once: millennial despair is summed up in her, and in her failing relationship with a mother from a different era. Amid all of the philosophical musing and kung fu fights, Hsu manages to imbue Everything Everywhere All At Once with a vital exploration of maternal interactions through trying times, and indeed make this the key element by the conclusion.
I could go on and on about the cast, who embrace the insanity of the script and play it just right, whether it is Jamie Lee Curtisplaying the piono with her feet in the sausage finger universe, or James Hong in a universe where he is some kind Nick Fury-type. They all commit, and in doing so they keep the film from being some sort of camp Austin Powers-esque thing, and instead something closer to an Edgar Wright production, with a masterful showcase of comedic chops and comedic timing mixing with some very relatable and well-written drama.
The nature of this premise means that the word of the day when it comes to the cinematography has to be invention, and that is exactly what the Daniels bring. Individual scenes look like they have been in the mind for years, so full of details and colour as they are: the Wang home at the very start of the film manages to appear both warm and inviting, as well as muddled, packed and garish, without either aspect ever overriding the other. The seemingly bland stage of the IRS office becomes something so much more when the multiverse pops in, with every flight of stairs, drawer and donut a potential focal point for cool zooms, pans and slow-mos. And by the end of the film the Daniels will have easily wowed you with the art of the medley sequences, as we jump from universe to universe and back again, dissecting numerous lives and places in a matter of seconds, and yet never straying too far from the essentially human drama on display. Not even when Everything Everywhere All At Once becomes a martial arts film.
I don’t really know how else to put it, but the fight scenes in Everything Everywhere All At Once are bad-ass. From choreographers Andy and Brian Le, and presumably with some assistance from Quan who has plenty of priors behind a camera, the film really goes all-in, starting with an incredible “one against many” showpiece involving Alpha Waymond, a few security mooks, a handbag and some chewing gum, and then proceeding to a truly eclectic mix: the aforementioned hand-to-hand that revolves around a race to fill an anus with something; a hallway battle where Jobu Tupaki demonstrates the true absurdity of the multiverse and all it can offer someone in terms of ways and means to fight; a montage based around giving hostile people the thing that will make them truly happy, and not just the violence they are presenting you with; and a whole host of nods, homages and lifting from a variety of genres and martial arts movies. In line with the film’s excellent sense of self and pacing, the action sequences are all suitably placed high points that tend to come out of nowhere, last just long enough and leave you wanting more.
In closing, I feel that I need to talk about ambition. That’s something that can often feel absent from cinema nowadays, where attention spans are limited, most of the money is made with well-worn franchises and the willingness to take risks sometimes appears to be gone altogether. Well, Everything Everywhere All At Once takes a hell of a risk, an the payoff is enormous. It is enough to say that I consider it the most ambitious movie I have seen in years, in how it attempts to mixt the absurd with the serious, the action-heavy with the philosophically weighty, and with the long running time with a story that requires the audience to engage their brain every step of the way. Its cast is doing amazing work, it looks spectacular and it is a film that, once seen, seems bound to draw the viewer back again so that they can find something new and wonderful to see within it. In essence, this is a film that you are unlikely to ever forget once you do see it because there has never really been anything quite like it. It comes very highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of A24).
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