Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr, James Hong, Tallie Medel, Jamie Lee Curtis
Run Time: 139 mins
Everything Everywhere All At Once is the second feature film directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels’). Their debut feature was Swiss Army Man, a surreal comedy that starred Paul Dano as a man marooned on an island who is joined by Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yes, you read that right. Despite critical acclaim, I couldn’t connect with the film at all and found it too zany for its own good.
It is difficult to categorise Everything Everywhere All At Once as it blends many genres but it is most closely an absurdist science fiction with elements of black comedy and martial arts.
The film stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang, an overwhelmed laundromat owner who lives with her goofy husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). The laundromat is being audited by the IRS and Waymond is similarly dissatisfied with life, ready to hand Evelyn divorce papers.
Family matters are complicated further by their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) who is trying to get her mother to accept her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel). This is as well as Evelyn’s demanding wheelchair-bound father Gong Gong (James Hong), who has just arrived to stay with the family from China.
It’s an excellent set-up and the directors deftly introduce the family members and their dysfunctional dynamic. The film then veers into genre mayhem as it’s crunch-time for the family with the IRS (Jamie Lee Curtis plays the interrogating inspector). Evelyn is introduced to the concept of the Multiverse by ‘Alpha Waymond’, a version of Waymond from the ‘Alphaverse’. He explains that each decision a person creates an alternate universe and he has developed the ability to jump across universes. The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, formerly Alpha Joy, who can experience every universe simultaneously following a disagreement with Alpha Evelyn.
The multiverse has been explored extensively in film recently, with Marvel using it to align different comic properties and expand the overarching narratives with films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I have a mixed outlook on the concept, as it tends to lessen the stakes of character emotional involvement, as well as making them more expendable. Kwan and Scheinert explore the concept differently as they draw parallels between universes and the life choices Evelyn has made, which affords the film an existential and nihilistic quality. The multiverse is therefore not for the sake of simply advancing a narrative but to function as a thematic mirror.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that needs to be watched repeatedly to fully understand it but my impressions after a first viewing are mixed. Starting with the positives, the first half an hour before the multiverse shenanigans are introduced is pretty much perfect. Once the multiverse concept is introduced, the film goes off the rails. There’s some giddy and inventive action sequences and heading into the third act, the film has a celestial quality as it starts to merge the multiverse with the theme of family. At times, the film is also quite profound.
Another plus are the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Michelle Yeoh gives one of the best performances of her career as Evelyn, who goes through quite the emotional arc. What a comeback for Ke Huy Quan, who peaked as a child with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies before largely leaving Hollywood. He matches Yeoh in the scenes they share and has a sincere yet earnest quality.
Stephanie Hsu is clearly a talent to watch for as she is brilliant as the daughter with an identity crisis. James Hong is given some great moments as the directors explore the inevitable problems old age can bring but brilliantly subvert this at times. Jamie Lee Curtis is fine as the IRS representative, whose character morphs into other personalities but I found the character strange and hard to connect with.
Onto the negatives, again with the caveat that I need to rewatch the film, but I found the film to be painfully overlong and repetitive. The novelty of the action sequences wore off quickly once the multiverse concept is let out of the bag and there’s just far too much baggage and a lack of momentum before the film starts to draw connections between the multiverse and the mother-daughter relationship. A good forty minutes or so could be cut.
I didn’t find the film particularly funny and the Daniels often revert to their boisterous stoner humour. They explore absurdist realities such as one where people have hotdogs for fingers as well as one that bizarrely features a raccoon transposition of Ratatouille. Both subplots are tediously overextended and aren’t as funny or profound as the Daniels intended.
On initial viewing, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a decidedly mixed bag. The film features excellent performances and its presentation of family is often well-judged. The film is strongest in its first and final acts but I found large stretches of its middle to be convoluted and repetitive and the humour often didn’t work for me. It’s a gargantuan step-up from Swiss Army Man and an ambitious follow-up but I don’t think the film is quite as intelligent as it thinks it is and find it quite overrated. I wish I liked it more.