We’re bound to hear a lot about Michelle Yeoh in the coming months, and again during awards season. She’s as good an example as any for the invisibility of Asian actors to the Academy, having starred in multiple Oscar winning and nominated films during her near-forty year career while never being nominated, herself. Everything Everywhere All At Once is a triumph of effort on all fronts, but as the lead of the film and conduit for experiencing its insanity, Yeoh’s effort is most acutely felt. She runs the entire gamut of emotion, from raw defeat, to discombobulation, to anger, despair, annoyance, awe, joy— the sheer breadth of her range is staggering, and made all the more impressive when considering the physical and mental work she had to have put in.
Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a worn-out laundromat owner undergoing a stressful tax audit who finds her bleak reality disjointed when she’s sent ricocheting through the multiverse and into several alternate timelines. This requires Yeoh to play the same character dozens of times, each incarnation subtly different due to diverging life paths, yet always retaining the same core of yearning and defiance. On top of this, the role requires extreme physical exertion for the volley of over-the-top fight scenes, the ability to play against ubiquitous and intricate special effects, and impeccable comedic timing to match the absurdist humor in the script. After the drama at this year’s Academy Awards, many consider the event to have sunk to a new low. But they have the opportunity to sink even lower by not giving Michelle Yeoh the Oscar in 2023.
Of course, the rest of the cast earns praise, and not just for mere adequacy. Ke Huy Quan, known for his roles as Data in The Goonies and Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will stand out the most because everyone loves a comeback, but it’s important to recognize that he perfectly executes the function of a strong supporting role. As Evelyn’s husband Waymond, he acts as a stabilizing presence, a reliable foil, an incredulous spectator of the mayhem, and an indispensable guide, and his line delivery is still just as sharp and hilarious as ever. Stephanie Hsu as Joy, the Wangs’ aimless mess of a daughter whose version from another world is wreaking havoc in the multiverse, oscillates between good and bad personas in a way that keeps judgment of her character in an ongoing state of suspense. Supplementing this central trio are Jamie Lee Curtis as an eminently watchable, surly IRS auditor and veteran character actor James Hong, who gets the chance to play a more lovingly crafted and deep character than in his other, admittedly hilarious, guest appearances elsewhere.
A film about the multiverse should really go all out, and Daniels (the collective credit for co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) certainly go all out with Everything Everywhere All At Once. No doubt a lot of reviews will include the phrase “lives up to its title”, and while one tries to avoid being repetitive, that really says it all. The script is thorough and intricate, pushing every one of its tangent scenarios to an inevitable conclusion, tracing arcs for every main character and even some side characters, never letting a fleeting moment or curious detail go unused. There are multiple shooting styles, sets, locations, costumes, and makeups, all radically different, each one of them containing more detail than some filmmakers are willing to put into just one world. As the film hops from genre to genre, from scenario to scenario, the Daniels don’t miss a chance to incorporate numerous cinematic influences. Stephen Chow kung fu fight sequences spill into sci-fi wizardry which fizzles into loving homages to Wong-Kar-Wai step-printing. It’s beautiful to behold, impressive almost to a fault, exhaustive and exhausting.
At two-and-a-half hours, this film will push some viewers into yearning for a quiet moment. If part of the ecstasy of action and suspense is the promise of eventual release, Everything Everywhere All At Once runs the risk of overkill and burning people out. There’s a fair bit of mental calibration required to keep track of multiple timelines, to digest the somewhat vague and conceptual explanations for whatever science is involved, and to connect the overwhelming action to the film’s themes. The audience must juggle what they see before then just as Evelyn must hop through multiple lives and fight multiple enemies to arrive at important epiphanies about her life, to see herself and those around her as more than just one thing—heroes and villains, losers and winners, as having the capability to be anyone or anything.
Evelyn is a woman with many dreams she’s failed to realize, and so transfers all her hopes into her daughter, leading to resentment, feelings of entrapment, pressure, being weighed down by expectations, and becoming an aimless depressive just like her mother. She alienates her husband, who she quietly blames for holding her back and allowing her to become a mediocrity. She reluctantly acts as caretaker to her father, the real shackle. There’s a Wizard of Oz quality to Everything Everywhere All At Once in that none of this chaos and absurdity may really be happening, that Evelyn is simply daydreaming, as she often does. With the power of imagination and ambition, everyone travels through a multiverse of dreams and wishes that, in many small ways, manifest in whatever circumstances they might find themselves in. The basic desires at the root of these fantasies become fulfilled in unexpected ways, so by indulging in flights of fancy while appreciating what’s right in front of us, we can be everything, everywhere, all at once. | Nic Champion