Everything Everywhere All At Once is an odd multiverse movie, blending Asian American family drama with the sci-fi craze for multiverses and the desire to see Michelle Yeoh make a kung-fu movie in her late fifties. It is an entertaining distraction, though frenetic and jumbled to the point of exhaustion. Its popularity suggests that people might be hungry for alternatives (that aren’t TOO alternative) to the Marvel universe.
Everything Everywhere All At Once, the new film by The Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) is easily the most frenetic film you will see this year. It stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, and Evelyn Wang, and Evelyn Wang! across multiple universes, each one created by a divergence in decision making. In the universe in which we first meet Evelyn, she’s struggling to balance the fraught relationships she has with her family — her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and her father (James Hong) — with the fact that her laundromat may go out of business, pending a meeting with the IRS.
Evelyn left China after falling for and marrying her husband against her father’s wishes and taking a chance on the laundromat has unleashed more stress than success. Evelyn’s concern with the business and her worry over what her visiting father will think of her family get in the way, taking precedence over addressing her crumbling relationships with her husband and daughter.
In a way, this is a film like The Farewell or Double Happiness, which both look at tension in Asian families as young daughters try to balance a North American youth with the expectations of their parents. Indeed, Joy was originally supposed to be played by Awkwafina — which would have made the similarities to The Farewell that much more striking. Evelyn was originally supposed to be a father played by Jackie Chan and that might have been a very different movie, in an alternate universe. Or not. Where the typical inter-generational Asian American drama fades out is where an oddly awkward sci-fi/kung fu movie fades in. The multiverse aspect literally stroboscopes its way through the rest of the movie.
As will probably now be common knowledge, Evelyn discovers that she is one of several Evelyns (another is a singer, another a kung fu expert, another an actor, another a chef, and so on) that followed different life trajectories. There is a prime universe where the analogues have learned to tap into their multiverse variations and through a series of unfortunate events, Joy’s analogue has learned to exist in multiple universes simultaneously, gaining power and becoming evil, hunting and destroying variations of her family while hopping from reality to reality. Evelyn must do the same in order to stop her.
The film’s schizophrenic nature — especially all that stroboscopic cutting between one reality and the next, and the next, and the next — is a commentary on the fractured nature of our modern lives. This seems to have hit a chord with moviegoers and critics, although it is hardly a new development in postmodern fiction. The film does distinguish itself from current Marvel multiverse offerings like Spiderman: No Way Home in that the Marvel Multiverse is laid out much more carefully, making it easier to digest and understand. A fair amount of exposition is continually thrown at the viewer in Everything Everywhere All At Once and though this may be explained as an amping up of the multiverse experience, it doesn’t make for a smooth film. The dialogue is always arch, whether in kung fu or family drama mode, and the acting lacks subtlety. On the other hand, my friends and I were pleasantly surprised because it didn’t conform to the big box movie expectations its concept exudes.
The things people might like about the film are also what fosters any detraction. Because the film tries to throw so much narrative information at you, the scenes don’t have room to breathe, and the characters never ultimately feel quite real or natural. Even if there is no ultimate reality, each reality should feel real and natural unto itself. The only one that really does feel grounded is the first one we meet Evelyn in (the one where she runs a failing laundromat and has problems with the IRS) but this lasts only until the sci-fi stuff takes over. That element squeezes out the opportunities for natural character and actor driven drama. This is a shame because the scenario set up at the beginning of the film, though it is reminiscent of other films, has some compelling stakes.
Furthermore, Yeoh seems quite capable of being a serious dramatic actress. I’ve always found the sensibility of her facial expressions and mien really compelling and interesting — there is a seriousness and unspoken gravitas there beneath the surface. However, the main agenda here seems to be to get Yeoh to do a kung-fu flick in her late fifties. Even then, who could complain? Except, of course, the kung-fu seems silly; the kicks and blows don’t make contact, and the wannabe campiness is neither funny nor functional. It’s just forced.
At the end of the film, things do wind down and seem to root themselves back in the reality we start off in. Relationships get addressed and even Evelyn’s troubles with the IRS agent (played by a far from glamorous Jamie Lee Curtis diving head first into her role) are resolved. In an odd way, perhaps like the first Matrix film that signaled an alternate direction to the regular Hollywood fare at the time, Everything Everywhere All At Once will trigger an alternate wave of films that will challenge Marvel Studios’ dominance. I do appreciate the focus on cultural politics, but I’d rather see it done through a return to concept sci-fi films that blend special effects, otherworldly settings, and statements about the human condition more naturally.