The world of film production and release scheduling has a funny way of making it look like one film copies another, when in reality coincidences abound, and sometimes seem too close to be true. Armageddon and Deep Impact both being made and released independently of one another in the same year is one example; 2022 meanwhile has two movies focused on the idea of a multiverse, one on the heavily-blockbuster side (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and one… well, one that almost defies explanation, namely Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Launderette owner Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is the epitome of put-upon, balancing the stresses of family life and impending tax issues thanks to mismanagement of her accounting. Juggling a despondent husband (Ke Huay Quan), an upset, angry daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and the most officiously evil of bureaucratic middle-aged accountants (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn’s depressing life is blown apart by her discovery that she’s an important figure in the multiverse, under threat from a mysterious and powerful evil.
That synopsis pretty much covers the main thrust of the plot, but this film is so unbelievably insane that mentioning why would ruin the fun. Director and writer duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) made a huge impact with their batshit debut Swiss Army Man (starring Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse with magical powers), and did the music video for Turn Down For What – which is as good a preparation for this film as anything else.
These two are incredibly unique filmmakers because they go all out, and make exactly the sort of film they want to make – there’s zero concession to the norm, and I doubt they’d agree to make anything more mainstream even if they were asked. Yes, this is about multiverses, but it takes that theoretical idea (and fictional plot device) to the absolute extreme.
While the pair could stop at hilarious, extreme or insane, they don’t – what they do instead is perhaps most surprising of all: they make a tragic, moving and surprisingly emotional film, with some top dramatic performances, and achieve this while simultaneously frying your brain with zany ingenuity.
The script is as thoughtful, philosophical and deep as the visuals and conceits onscreen are immature, and melted down to its essence, interrogates family strife and relationships. Whether optimistic parental expectations, outdated opinions, children disillusioned and angered by parents’ passive-aggressive, backwards perspectives, or spouses questioning their relationships, Everything Everywhere All At Once has it all: and not just in one universe.
Evelyn’s life is about as “stuck in a rut” as one can be, and her discovery of how she fits into a multiverse full of Evelyns with wildly different lives and skills is one of the more intelligent plot conceits. While everything that occurs is by its nature out of this world (literally), anyone can appreciate the familial struggles and disputes, and relate to that feeling of underachievement, or hopes of achieving something with your life: these are key elements beneath the madness.
It’s also surprisingly deep when it comes to questions of philosophy, articulating the very seductive pull of nihilism and that “nothing matters” that many younger people feel, while contrasting it with optimism about existence and what we can do in the time that we have. That such conversations and heady topics are presented in multiversal existences by inanimate rocks, or people with hotdogs for fingers, just makes this even more intensely unique than you might imagine.
The Daniels really took the idea of infinite branching realities to heart, and their surprisingly scientific approach to the multiverse is to be commended, though some of the realities might be less comprehensive than you’d imagine! It’s in their depiction of the way that people can “verse-jump” between realities, and assume the abilities or knowledge of alternate versions of themselves, that you get a really strong sense of their playfulness and confidence.
To do such this, characters have to do something completely unpredictable and weird – ranging from declaring sincerely that they love an enemy, through to… jumping with trousers down and landing on a sex toy. Yeah. This madness is where the many laughs come, and violence is tempered somewhat by this approach too, one memorable fight scene seeing an antagonist beat a group of policemen with dildos and turning them into confetti.
What’s key to point out is that other films could have just made it all about the zaniness, where as this one centres everything around character and emotion: its concluding scenes are like something from a conventional drama, and even scenes with the aforementioned rocks hit emotional, comedic and philosophical heights.
The Daniels are ably helped in this epic endeavour by the cinematography of Larkin Seiple, who uses different lighting and aspect ratios to show us the difference between universes. A Hong-Kong cinema-inspired filter gives one reality a sensuous, romantic drama feel, while martial arts movie homages come via slickly-lit fights and clear visual skill. Editor Paul Rogers is also instrumental, threading together universal transitions seamlessly and providing an unstoppable sense of forward motion.
Musically, Son Lux’s score isn’t overly memorable, but it does its job at emotional high and low points, and keeps thudding along with the action; clever use of Clair de Lune at one point is a notable example of music you’d be familiar with, but messed with it in the style of the rest of the film.
Michelle Yeoh is quietly impressive, effortlessly playing multiple versions of her character, and utilising not only her aptitude with stunts and martial arts, but a keen sense for humour and drama. Her scenes with all of the other main performers are often strong, not least with Ke Huay Quan’s Waymond or Stephanie Hsu’s Joy, all three portraying a dysfunctional yet familiar family unit full of issues, unspoken feelings and angst.
What Yeoh does best is show Evelyn’s disbelief and growing acceptance of her predicament and how to improve it, simply because she’s done nothing with her life and therefore is best-placed to succeed where others failed. Yeoh gives her a world-weariness and growing sense of contained anger and acceptance about her own life, seeing paths not travelled and the dead-ends she might yet meet.
Huay Quan’s triumphant return decades after Temple of Doom and The Goonies sees him stand out via a mix of haplessness, laser focus and emotional depth across universes, and I hope we see more of him – it feels like a real shame that we’ve not seen him for such a long time. Hsu is also excellent as both ends of the angry teenager scale, whether too afraid to stand up to her domineering mother, be open about her sexuality, or in destroying things because she just doesn’t care anymore.
Notable mentions too to Jamie Lee Curtis’ frankly insane appearance as the ridiculously-named and dressed accountant Deidre Beaubeirdra, all mega-frump and fury in our universe and a multitude of other things – some surprisingly touching – in others. She’s clearly having a laugh though, and again I’m reminded of her top comedic abilities beyond trying to kill Michael Myers over and over. Finally, there’s another great 80s throwback in the casting of James Hong as the Wong family’s grandfather, the actor getting to play hapless old coots as well as steely-eyed, driven military mission leaders.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an absolutely mad film made with indie sensibilities and a zany, extreme style – yet, more than anything, has a very thoughtful, funny and moving story at its core of balancing family relationships and expectations with a desire to live a fulfilling life. It’s batshit, enjoyable insane, out-there and thrilling “all at once”, and if you’ve got the tolerance for it, give it a go.