Filmmaking duo Daniels, comprising Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, first broke out onto the feature film scene in 2016. Their survival comedy-drama Swiss Army Man made waves for its unabashed weirdness and Daniel Radcliffe’s unforgettable performance as a farting corpse. Their latest surrealist offering, Everything Everywhere All At Once, is a mind-bending action-comedy joint starring Michelle Yeoh.
Despite minimal marketing prior to its release, the film was hotly anticipated by the Internet. The hype was founded on three things: the long-overdue return of Yeoh to silver screen leading lady status; the return of former Indiana Jones child actor Ke Huy Quan to any screen after 20 years; and the fact that it’s an indie film about a multiverse – a concept that has largely been the playground of giant entertainment corporations for the last decade now.
Daniels’ foray into big-screen sci-fi is also fortuitously timed. It arrives on the heels of the massively successful Spider-Man: No Way Home, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first live-action offering to explicitly converge multiple universes. It also immediately precedes the next MCU release that will do so as well, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Long story short, multiverses are all the rage right now. And if this gets more people into theatres to see Everything Everywhere All At Once, I would not be mad.
The core of Everything Everywhere All At Once’s many universes is the Wang family. Evelyn (Yeoh) is perpetually stressed and strung-out; interested in nothing more than surviving the daily bustle of running the family’s laundromat. Her husband Waymond (Quan) is a teddy bear of a man who cooks breakfast and dances with customers. Despite being the peacemaker of the family, he often goes overlooked. Their sarcastic, sullen daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) just wants her mother to stop criticizing her and accept her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel), especially at the advent of a visit from her exacting grandfather (James Hong).
The humdrum pace of their lives is thrown askew when Waymond serves Evelyn with divorce papers one morning. The same day, the family visits an Internal Revenue Service office in an attempt to sort out their dire finances. It’s here that Evelyn meets Alpha Waymond – another version of her husband who is a verse-jumper from another universe. He tells her she is the only one who can stop a fearsome villain terrorizing the multiverse called Jobu Tupaki.
Now, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. I can confirm right off the bat that this movie is outrageously, ridiculously, refreshingly fun. Mainstream audiences (especially those who don’t spend time on Twitter) seem to struggle with mustering enthusiasm for indie releases. Often, it’s on the basis that they’re ‘weird’, ‘deep’ or ‘artsy’.
Everything Everywhere All At Once hits that unique sweet spot of being all those things, and a truly entertaining ride.
It’s not just flash and fireworks, either. The layers to the story are ambitiously complex: verse-jumping mechanics alone require some hefty explaining. However, director-writers Kwan and Scheinert wisely keep each wild beat firmly anchored to strong characterization and relationship dynamics. Here, there are several stories and arcs going on: Evelyn and Waymond’s struggle to reconnect; Evelyn and Joy’s mutual frustrations; Evelyn’s internal conflict and how that affects her relationships with her family – especially her aged father, whose disappointment she never got over.
The exploration and development of these dynamics – enhanced by Son Lux’s stunning score – are what makes every convoluted beat work. It’s never just about how fun or crazy the ideas being played out are (which, they are!). Everything hinges on how the Wangs react and make choices that affect each other.
By throwing this family into a myriad of wild situations with bloodthirsty IRS agents named Deirdre (a deliciously gleeful Jamie Lee Curtis) and trophies shaped like butt plugs, Daniels interrogate a plethora of themes: the crippling fear of failure; the relentless frustration with constantly desiring different choices and outcomes; masculinity in Asian men; and intergenerational conflict and tension. Each layer of the Wangs’ journey is uniquely poignant, explored via the perspectives and experiences of Chinese women in America.
The cast turns in absolutely impeccable performances, starting with a definitive career-best from Yeoh. While known for her action skills, she’s been inexplicably denied the chance to flex her comedic chops for too long. Here, she is the quintessential Chinese auntie. She is pitch perfect from the tonal choices in line delivery to the hilariously inflexible postures she holds.
It’s truly something special to witness the skilful way she conveys the hilarious and heartbreaking contradictions of her character. Evelyn doesn’t want to have to embrace anything new or unfamiliar – but, at the same time, constantly longs for more. (My own mother can 100% relate.)
Without question, the most physically impressive performance comes from Quan. Aside from smartly choreographed fight scenes, he spends more time than his co-stars do playing alternate versions of his character. Every inch of Quan’s preparation work shines through in his performance. Each new variation of Waymond emotes, speaks, and moves distinctly differently than the last. (Quan hired for himself a slew of coaches for his own training in body movement, among other things.)
Stephanie Hsu, too, is a force of nature. It’s one thing taking on a project this ambitious for your first leading role in a film. It’s another to be playing an incredibly nuanced character like Joy. It’s a third thing to be doing it opposite a maestra like Yeoh – but Hsu carries it off with ease.
In less capable hands, it’s easy to see how Joy could fall into self-centred territory. But the fierce sincerity on which Hsu grounds her performance keeps the audience wholly sympathetic to her. You may not always agree with Joy; especially so if you don’t have a Chinese mother you’ve never been quite sure truly, unconditionally loves you. Regardless, you cannot help but feel for her.
Here’s hoping Hollywood has the sense to keep both her and Quan booked and busy from now on.
The visual effects are playful, colourful and graphic without being garish or distracting. Honestly, they put most of the MCU and DCEU to shame. Kwan has talked on Twitter about the trials they faced with VFX, which makes theirs an even greater triumph. It’s the kind of work Edgar Wright would be proud to employ were he to make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World today.
Once verse-jumping gets underway, characters often cycle through as many as seven or eight distinct looks within a single sequence. Major props go to the wardrobe, hair and makeup departments, led by Kevynn Brewer, Anissa Salazar and Michelle Chung respectively.
All in all, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a true cultural reset for cinema, both independent and mainstream – one that’s well worth a trip to the theatre.