There it is! A spark of inspiration for Evelyn after what feels like eons of clacking rocks together inside her mind, inching her impulse ever onward to a decision. The time is now. The feeling in her heart is right. Yes! Do it! She will buy this … uh, karaoke machine. Evelyn always dreamed of being a singer, after all. What better way to experience a brief taste of that unrealized life than dropping a few bones on a blocky machine that displays the lyrics of pop songs? Why, Evelyn could even use it in the life she chose, that of the owner of a failing California laundromat. HEY. Maybe she could write it off as a business expense if only she could have … let’s see … a community Chinese New Year party. YES. That’s it. Perfect! But wait. What’s that? Why has the cost of the karaoke machine been hastily and haughtily circled on an invoice as though its price were its only perceived value? Cost isn’t all that matters about karaoke. Why, karaoke moves people’s feet and moves them forward, right? Surely it can! Again, why has the Internal Revenue Service boiled it down to dollars and cents, trapped inside a black hole of ink pressed forth from the hand of an auditor who wears a brace for a repetitive stress injury? The IRS’s effort to bring this reported expense to Evelyn’s waning attention as a bad business decision has certainly worked: That long-ago spark is now a conflagration that consumes Evelyn’s thoughts and could now burn down her life as the owner of a failing California laundromat. And maybe that other life, in another universe, in which she did become a singer. Or the one in which she became a hibachi chef frustrated by her colleagues’ supernaturally superior skills. Perhaps also the one in which she’s a sign spinner on a busy corner, whose physical expressiveness is nothing more than a fleeting thought for passing motorists. And maybe even the universes inhospitable to the development of physical life where her soul still exists.
If its title weren’t a dead giveaway, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a lot of movie. On paper, it’s an oddball lo-fi sci-fi odyssey in which a woman must encounter her many other selves across a multiverse and engage their divergent skills to save every universe from collapse at the hands of an omniscient, evil force. This Evelyn, it’s argued, has been so bad at everything that perhaps she is capable of doing just about anything to save it. In practice, EEAAO ceaselessly spikes an anything-goes fever of pliable reality, right down to universes in which human evolutionary adaptations became very different, quite messy and always funny. In principle, it’s an allegory for the fractures and shutdowns we face amid decision paralysis and how, in moments of fear, seconds seem to sustain for lifetimes. It’s a fight for the lives of everyone everywhere in a fermata defined by fear, force and (eventually) tender feeling. Amid its blistering, buoyant and bountiful scenes of hand-to-hand combat hearkening back to Hong Kong martial-arts comedies like Wheels on Meals, the film tackles the unbearable fight-ness of being. During its moments of sublime domestic comedy, it offers a clear, unsparing view of the eternal sunset of the ceaseless grind.
EEAAO hails from writers-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who have wisely shed their combined-credit moniker of Daniels here. This is a film that deserves and demands the application of their full names to it in the way they have given their whole selves to it, as the six years since their last collaborative film, 2016’s Swiss Army Man, have afforded a remarkable bloom of perspective and maturity in their approach. Because 2016 was a lifetime ago, Swiss Army Man was the movie in which Paul Dano wound up marooned on an island, befriended Daniel Radcliffe’s newly and strangely sentient corpse and used him as a tool to survive until he could ride the body — powered by a motor of post-mortem bloat — back to shore. It was as if Adam Sandler hired Charlie Kaufman to write his kids a bedtime story but Donald Kaufman wrote it overnight while Charlie was sleeping. Swiss Army Man certainly had its moments but was ultimately too arch, twee and ironically detached to pull off its third-act leap from magical realism to tragical realism. But Kwan and Scheinert’s visual sensibilities were readily apparent. EEAAO is the very model of what those who hold big-swing cinema dear would hope for from their feature-length follow-up — still fit to bursting with ideas (and occasionally crude humor) but with confident, unceasing command and control of the purposefully chaotic storytelling that is their stock-in-trade. If there’s any nit to pick, it’s a joke cribbed from a certain 2018 Best Picture nominee, although that will perhaps serve to cull complainers that were never going to find this film’s wavelength anyway.
Otherwise, there is a full, fast-beating heart beneath its caffeinated cheek — a hurlyburly that retains its humanity even at its most hilarious summits, not unlike The Matrix housed inside Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. EEAAO is a film of absolutes, absurdities and the abundant emotion inherent to how deleterious detritus forms in our minds amid overwhelming obligations and a barrage of missed opportunities. It’s no wonder some characters require braces for repetitive stress movement. (That a film concerning the entirety of existence tangibly takes place only in an IRS cube farm and a cramped laundromat is also a thing of wonder on its own, although cinematographer Larkin Seiple and editor Paul Rogers create a look and rhythm of endless expanse across this story.)
Kwan and Scheinert also don’t pretend like they have somehow discovered the power of multiversal narratives. The novelty here is not the notion of what a character’s life could have been, an idea that has powered storytellers for centuries (chiefly at Christmastime). It’s how the notion of, say, Infinite is applied to something far more intimate (and you can stop laughing as Infinite is good, too). In fact, it’s refreshing to see filmmakers comfortable with so readily acknowledging a vast accumulation of influences on a work while still retaining idiosyncrasy and not just offering low-toner copies a few decades out. In fact, the unexpected reference of a once-ubiquitous one-hit-wonder pop-rock song from the early 2000s (a ditty no one would expect any movie to reference in this way) reveals Kwan and Scheinert’s understanding that such things acquire a weight akin to emotional folklore as we age. As quoted here, the song is applicable to the sunnier days of decades past when the person who cites it felt alive with possibility. In a moment that calls for more than whatever he could mumble on his own, he shuffles through his mind and settles for pop-culture poetry — purple, sure, but perfect in that instant. We’ve all been there, and EEAAO understands how all the wrong turns, stumbles and falls bring us there.
It’s also welcome that Kwan and Scheinert lay their narrative cards on the table from the start. EEAAO thankfully doesn’t care much about swindling us on the source of this universe-gobbling evil Evelyn must stop, using an early reveal that affords the character work they are clearly prioritizing. They are aided by committed performances from every actor (and stunt performer) at their disposal — among them Jamie Lee Curtis, tapping her underutilized gift for physical and situational comedy as an auditor, and the legendary James Hong holding court as Evelyn’s disapproving father visiting from China. But the three central turns are all remarkable, generous and inseparable from the film’s resonant power.
The role of Evelyn represents nothing short of a revelatory, career-best turn from Michelle Yeoh — upon whom Hollywood has relied solely for stoic ass-kicking and / or stoic ass-chewing across a quarter-century of stateside visibility. The story dictates several Evelyns, but not everyone could so crucially embody them with immediately identifiable distinction and commonalities (sometimes with just a rapid-cut facial expression) as Yeoh does. Although she is called upon to do the things she’s done so well for decades, they are also embodied with a deeper palette of personality — a sadness beneath the severity.
Awkwafina was initially cast to play Joy, Evelyn’s college-aged daughter who is currently flailing through crucial decisions about her future while navigating caustic generational and cultural waters as an out lesbian. A happy accident that Stephanie Hsu wound up with this role instead, to which she brings heartbreaking anxiety as Joy wrestles with the nihilistic view that estrangement and loneliness represent her only possible outcomes.
Plus, it is a true delight to see Ke Huy Quan — best known for his roles as a child in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies — return from retirement in a major film and with such a meaty role. Waymond is Evelyn’s husband and Joy’s father. Most of all, Waymond is the family peacekeeper, and with Joy aged out to be on her own, Waymond has chosen to seek the ultimate armistice of separation from Evelyn (as revealed in the opening sequence). What seems like an insensitively timed conversation about the seriousness of Evelyn’s IRS audit is instead the only way Waymond can reach her to rouse her interest in something that could really ruin the family. There are multiple versions of Waymond, too, across this wild and wooly multiverse. Direct attempts at de-escalation prove to be Waymond’s superpower in each of them. Waymond is just as formidable as Evelyn, just as Quan’s acting is alongside Yeoh. Through him, EEAAO ultimately becomes a roaring plea for kindness amid the chaos. For a film that’s all about encouraging strengths not readily apparent among those we encounter, Yeoh, Quan and Hsu all dazzle in unexpected, unforgettable ways. For all this multiversal madness, the actors (and filmmakers) realize EEAAO is a story of how compassion must also be a necessary and strategic adaptation, even as so much of the world threatens to corrode it down into nothing.
Everything Everywhere All At Once finds endless inventiveness as much in its high bar of endearing, enveloping drama as a limbo bar of bizarre multiversal requirements. (Just when you think Kwan and Scheinert find the floor on that, they lower the limbo bar ever so joyously — chiefly in the actions required of Evelyn, Waymond and others to “verse-jump” into other lives.) It’s a rollicking ride that’s chiefly about shifting your perspective to expect something greater — rarely realized better than in a moment where it becomes clear that the stance you could use to snap someone’s neck could also be the one you strike to adjust it and absolve their pain. It’s a magnum-opus mind-bender ultimately rooted in relatable ennui that everyone watching it will either understand or soon come to know — and one enamored less with ending lives than improving them. This is handily one of 2022’s best films.