There’s something to say about a film that gives you the chills just by writing about it. Surprisingly, that’s my experience now with Everything Everywhere All At Once, but it did not alway feel like that would be the case. After a great deal of buzz was created for a film which was honestly not even on my radar a few months ago, I decided to avoid all information, Tweets, and trailers.
I had a similar situation with Parasite a few years back. Some trusted voices told me it was amazing, to go in blindly and enjoy the ride. Several months of avoiding all conversations and potential spoilers, it finally came to theaters. I saw it opening weekend and wow did I enjoy the ride. It was my top film of that year.
The strange thing with Everything Everywhere All At Once is while I did enjoy what was on screen, about one third of the way through I was not sure if it was completely clicking with me. I remember thinking to myself, sure, there’s an impressive amount of creativity on display, but what else is there? It was almost a sensory overload with hints of something more personal under the layers and layers of sci-fi, marital arts fantasy action. The title itself seemed like a spoiler, this was the creative kitchen sink approach – everything everywhere all at once. I was preparing myself for disappointment.
When the film ended I experienced something I recall only occurring a couple of times before in all my film watching years. As the credits started to roll and I just sat there, frozen, staring kind of broken and spent by what I had just witnessed. I do not know how or when, but the film I was pegging as a display of creatively cool elements camouflaging the shortcomings of a shallow film was anything but. What I witnessed instead was nothing short of a masterpiece. (Here go those chills again.) I laughed, I held my breath, I shook my head with wonder, I clenched my butt cheeks (seriously), and I cried… several times. This is not a shallow film it rich with actual emotional depth.
Many films deliver large doses of creativity on the screen and implode because of it. What the directors/writers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels) did with Everything Everywhere All At Once was somehow combine all of these elements into a rewarding, endearing, simply put, beautiful film. My immediate thought as I thawed out was how much I wish I shared this with my wife. Which beyond five star ratings or thumbs ups, for me is the sign of a truly great film.
In an attempt to retain this experience for you, I will be vague and hold back on some of the biggest moments for you. (My recommendation is to stop reading now and go buy a ticket at your local theater.) Walking the line of discussing the film while retaining spoiler free is always a challenge, but one I feel is one I need to take on. This film has quite the scope and does cram in so much that doing so is not an easy task. Just trust me, whatever words I used to describe it, I will not do it justice.
On the outside, everything looks fine for the Wang family. At its core the family is struggling internally to hold things together while external factors apply even more pressure, tearing at the seams which are already showing wear. Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), runs the family laundromat. It is an existence that is not as rewarding or profitable as she may have once dreamed. Along with her is her meek and supportive husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) who while overly polite and often wearing a smile is feeling lost in their marriage.
Add to the mix, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), their lesbian daughter who wants to be seen by her mother, yet always seems to be tiptoed around especially when it comes to her grandfather (film legend, James Hong) who Everyln thinks will be destroyed by such a revelation. Your typical picture perfect family on the inside, who also happens to be being audited by IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (played by the amazing Jamie Lee Curtis) for some questionable expenses.
As everything seems to be collapsing around them both personally and in a business sense, an exciting adventure reveals itself in the form of the Alphaverse – an endless series of realities, which itself is in danger of collapse and it is all tied to Eveyln. An alternate version of Waymond is her guide to taking different variants of herself in a quest to save reality as they know it.
The film then explores variations on just who Evelyn is and could have been if different choices have been made. It is like The Matrix combined with Run Lola Run and a touch of It’s a Wonderful Life, blended together and topped off with some hallucinogens in the best possible way. It takes you down some paths you may anticipate and others so bizarre that I have a hard time believing I just watched.
I will let you explore them on your own, but I will say that not a moment is completely random or delivered only for show. Each one is a commentary on who Evelyn and her family have become. By the time the film is over you will appreciate rocks, hot dogs, raccoons and fingers in a way you never expected to. Honestly, as I type it, (as odd as it sounds) this last sentence kind of choked me up. It is that original of a film.
When all is said and done, Daniels are masterful puppeteers who take us on an amazing journey which works on so many different levels. They keep us invested in each of Evelyn’s realities and find a way for them to each enhance the humanity of her story. Early on in the film I was convinced I could see the ‘strings’ controlling all the parts. By the time it ended either they would conveniently cut them loose as if they did not exist or that the strings would end up a tangled mess due to the sheer complexity and variety of them. Their ability to navigate us through the tornado of inventiveness into a beautifully relatable story is why it all works.
The credit does not rest solely in the hands of Dan and Dan. Yes, their fingerprints are on this film from opening frame to end, but so many others deserve credit because a film of this scope does not come together without an incredible amount of collaboration. This begins with the cast. Michelle Yeoh, in case you didn’t know this, is a treasure who has delivered amazing performances for decades. This just may be her best work yet especially since her catalog of work was obviously on the minds of their minds while writing this.
Her dramatic, comedic and action chops are all on display without yielding for a second. Every second she is on screen she has your full attention, including during the martial arts scenes which prove she has not lost a step. It is a lush role that demands an actress with the range and physicality Yeoh possesses. Simply stunning work.
Another name to remember is one many of us have forgotten or have never known, Waymond is played by Ke Huy Quan. Most people recognize him as Short Round from the second Indiana Jones film. The actor, who also was a beloved part of The Goonies, disappeared from Hollywood because there were simply not enough roles out there for Chinese actors. A sad truth. He returned to acting after seeing Crazy Rich Asians, thinking that more roles for asian actors were on the horizon. He landed a great one. Hopefully the start of a long and prosperous comeback. Quan is just wonderful. I told you how amazing Michelle Yeoh was, he is right there with her. The range of his performance, which threatens to feel like one note for the first third, is surprising and itself demands not to be missed.
Also leading the way are the legendary James Hong as Gong Gong (the grandfather) and Stephanie Hsu as the daughter Joy. Neither performance is lost in the wake of Yeoh’s masterful work. Hsu, who is a name to remember, building off of her great work on this season’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, delivers on many more levels than you would expect. The mother/daughter relationship is a vital part of the story and Hsu’s performance lands strong. Hong is always a joy to watch, adding to his marathon career with surprisingly faceted work here.
And then there is Jamie Lee Curtis who gives her everything in a role that is not flattering in the least. She reminds us of her strong comedic work while at the same time adding redeemable qualities to a character that is anything but pleasant. Also in the cast are Jenny Slate, Sunita Mani and even Randy Newman.
The world building as we hop through multiverses is impressive and at times just plain bonkers. The Daniels ability to keep our interest in each then rein it all in is probably the film’s most commendable achievement. The relatively small budget here shows at times, but never interferes with the storytelling, at times it is part of the charm. There is not a single element of the film on autopilot.
The multimedia cacophony of sound and visuals is crafted with precision by the editor Paul Rogers and sound team Brent Kiser, Alexandra Fehrman, Andrew Twite, Julie Diaz. Through their work the Alphaverse exists. Not to mention the VFX team whose work delivers Marvel-level energy without the barrage of CGI on a shoe-string budget without pulling us out of this world for a second. Much of which looks to be practical special effects, relying on more traditional methods with limited green screen. They help bring to life some extraordinarily inventive martial arts and memorable physical comedy. Plus, Beth Morgan’s costumes and Amelia Brooke’s art direction are outstanding as well, all worthy of their own dissection and appreciation.
With all the creativity on display the heart of the film could be lost behind what is interpreted as gimmicks. While some elements are thrown in to add to the zany fun (eating chapstick, bagels, dildos, and paper cuts come to mind) underneath everything is intertwined into several themes that resonate well after the initial surprise passes. Daniels takes chances at every step which I first felt were filmmakers being clever for the sake of being clever. I can firmly say that a couple of rocks with googly eyes have never been used so effectively in the history of cinema. But what they say with those moments is often so profound I was surprised how much it worked.
That’s the magic of the film, just where the enjoyment and emotional impact is mined from and how it creeps up on you. There’s nothing quite like it. The menu of madness, which on paper looks like just too much to control, a case of extreme sensory overload; and still they pull it all together like a pilot pulling out of a spinning nosedive in a thunderstorm only to make a picture perfect landing.
When I walked out the door I felt good about humanity. I felt hope. The journeys the characters take us on are quite universal even if handled in a multiversal fashion. Self-acceptance, family, and purpose will translate for just about everyone, everywhere. There was a ton to process to reach that destination and I am certain that with repeat viewings of Everything Everywhere All At Once (which the film almost demands) I will take away much more. I look forward for another trip into this universe. Let me just grab my chapstick
Everything Everywhere All At Once avoids being crushed under the weight of its own creative ambition, delivering a satisfying film full of great performances, martial arts, mind-bending elements, rocks and hot dogs. You’ll get it when you see it.