Everything Everywhere All at Once is the rare movie where it is actually accurate to say it has something for everyone.
For as long as movies have been made, people have been combining one or more established ideas into something new. We see filmmakers experimenting with genre blends and rehashing past successes for a more contemporary audience. Think about how Alien combined science fiction and horror for the first time in the mainstream. Think about how Die Hard took the machismo action movie of the 1980’s and sophisticated it for a new era. Suffice to say, as long as there have been entertaining movies people have been riffing off of them.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Directed By: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Written By: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis
Release Date: March 25, 2022
Everything Everywhere All at Once is, on the surface, yet another example of putting good ideas in a blender and seeing what comes out. It is an homage to the multi-versal world-building of our most expensive tentpole franchises, but produced as an edgy down-to-earth indie film. From this perspective it is less a combination of established genres, and more a combination of the different ways we approach filmmaking in this modern era. As the title suggests, it is something that defies easy categorization because it expands beyond the traditional categories we have attempted to construct.
The resulting film bombards you with all sorts of ideas, approaches, and methods of execution. It can be overwhelming, overbearing, and certainly you could argue it overextends itself. But that is exactly the realm of filmmaking which seems to resonate with audiences these days. Competition is so fierce that blockbusters have to keep pushing, even when it doesn’t make sense. We throw physics, reality, common sense out the window as every major release tries to outdo the last one. EEAAO is playing in this same field, but the rules of its game are entirely different, and unique.
First, the stakes are different. EEAAO isn’t relying solely on mind-numbing eye candy and insane action sequences to keep you entertained. It has enough of those things, but that isn’t the reason for its existence. Instead, the heart of the film is about a family coming apart at the seams. It’s less about saving the world (which it is about, kind of) and more about saving your sanity. That’s hard to explain in the context of a film that throws (literally) everything at you, but that’s kind of the point. In our hectic lives, we forget to stop and smell the roses. In the case of EEAAO, hectic is an understatement, and roses reference the very core aspect of being alive: finding your purpose.
Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is a Chinese-American who has a lot going on. Her laundromat is being audited by the IRS, her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) is trying to get a divorce, she can’t connect with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and she is being visited by her disapproving father. While meeting with an IRS inspector, Waymond’s body is taken over by a version of himself from an alternate universe called the “Alphaverse”. He needs Evelyn’s help because Alphaverse Evelyn had developed a technology to obtain the abilities and experiences of other versions of ourselves from other universes. However, Alphaverse Evelyn’s strained relationship with her daughter caused an accident which ultimately cost Aplhaverse Evelyn her life, and made Joy into a supervillain named Jobu who is hell-bent on destroying the universe.
The film piles more and more on Evelyn’s plate. Not only does she have to deal with the disaster that is her own life, but soon the fate of the entire universe comes to rest on her improbable shoulders. This burden takes its toll, and finding salvation in the midst of this avalanche of misery seems impossible. Evelyn very nearly gives up. But in her deepest despair the never-ending parade of possibilities does offer the smallest window of hope. She sees these alternatives to her life and can’t help but be inspired.
Through a philosophical exploration, Evelyn comes to better comprehend how the relationships she has with the people closest to her are critical. With everything she had going on, she took those relationships for granted because of her own selfish desires. She learns to find peace, and love in the most unlikely places. Most importantly, despite the lure of all the other versions of Evelyn and the exotic lives they lived, she comes to appreciate her own life and her position within it.
Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have made a name for themselves in extracting wholesome truths from improbable situations. EEAAO seems built to push the boundaries of “improbable” to their breaking point. Certainly the film takes pride in its outlandish creativity, which may be overwhelming for those who adhere to tradition. You can criticize the film for going too far – but that is kind of the point. We already live in an outlandishly bizarre world where nothing seems to make sense anymore. What’s important is what keeps us grounded, and EEAAO is a journey to find one’s center.
But more than just an exercise in (purposeful) excess, EEAAO deserves praise for its incredible cast and the way they work together to guide us through this multifarious journey. Michelle Yeoh impresses not just because she gets to show off her legendary martial arts skills on occasion, but because she is able to smartly convey Evelyn’s initial exasperation at being lost in life and what it takes to eventually become whole again. Ke Huy Quan’s heralded return to cinema brings a compelling energy and charisma to the film, and Stephanie Hsu’s turn as the villain provides a deranged and unpredictable foil. It’s been a little while since we saw Jamie Lee Curtis in a comedic role, and she is delightful.
If the multiverse-exploring plot feels somewhat redundant to the latest big-budget superhero movie, just take one look at the film’s craftsman-like production to understand how it sets itself apart. With flamboyant costumes, expressive makeup, and cluttered but otherwise mundane set design – this film is as far from a big-budget spectacle as you can get. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to look at. The lo-fi special effects, and often cartoonish sequences give it a unique vibe. Action fans will appreciate some very, uh, creative fight sequences.
We often sum up films by saying they are more than just the sum of their parts. In the case of EEAAO, the varied and diverse “parts” are the appeal. Certainly there is a heartfelt thread linking the smorgasbord together, but the film never transcends that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling. But rather than falling apart as a jumbled mess under the weight of its massive ambitions, the film sticks to its guns, and it pays off. For once, too much is just plenty.