Benjamin Franklin said, “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” When we first meet Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) she is being swallowed up by the latter, sitting at a table in the apartment above the laundromat she operates with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), every inch of its surface cluttered with stacks of receipts. And as we proceed to watch her bustle about her day, it’s easy to imagine that there isn’t much else left in store for her except the former. She’s getting all their paperwork in order because they are being audited by the IRS. She’s planning a Lunar New Year party for the community. She’s dealing with customers and problems at the laundry. She’s caring for her elderly father (James Hong), who has come from China to live with them. She has a tense relationship with her young adult daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and is unable to accept that she has a white girlfriend named Becky (Tallie Medel), and the meek Waymond has been trying to serve her divorce papers, but her attention is being pulled in too many directions for her to notice. We only see her pause, once, briefly, to watch a romance scene in a movie musical playing in the laundromat, and her face takes on a wistful expression as she gently sways back and forth with the music. For a moment, she’s somewhere else. But that’s only briefly, and then she’s on the go again, doing a lot but appearing to feel very little, alive but not really living.
A lot of us can likely relate to the frantic pace of Evelyn’s life, how mundane but necessary tasks can pile up and becoming overwhelming, pushing away the things that actually matter. Also relatable is the wonderment at what your life might had turned out like if you had made a different choice at a different time. Evelyn’s past is revealed in quick flashbacks: Waymond proposing to her and promising that they can make a life for themselves in America, her leaving China with Waymond against her father’s wishes, them opening up the laundromat, the birth of their daughter. As IRS auditor Deirdre (a hilarious, semi-menacing, and scene-stealing Jamie Lee Curtis) goes over the Wangs’ receipts, she tells them that in those bits of paper she sees a story, as she points out the various things that Evelyn has tried to write off as business expenses, items that would suggest that Evelyn is also a singer, a teacher, a chef. “My wife sometimes mistakes hobbies for businesses,” her well-meaning husband explains, but present in those hobbies are all the other paths Evelyn could have taken, all the other lives she could have lived.
This entire set-up to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the new film from “Swiss Army Man” writers and directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as the Daniels), is masterfully realized, punctuated with humor and drama while setting up the frenetic pace that only gets crazier as the film progresses, and establishing the family dynamic that ultimately serves as the crux of the story. The real world problems Evelyn and her family are mired in take a fantastical turn after Waymond’s body is suddenly taken over by a Waymond from a parallel universe, who informs Evelyn that he needs her help saving the multiverse from the chaotically powerful Jobu Tupaki, and that she can use verse-jumping technology to access the skills and memories of her parallel universe counterparts. And in those other universes, Evelyn sees herself thriving. She is a chef. She is a movie star. She is a singer. She is a kung fu master. As the Alpha Waymond tells her, she is currently “living her worst life.” Now, she gets to see the other paths she could have taken.
With “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the Daniels take on a lot, throwing an abundance of hilariously wild scenarios and visual styles into their movie that are often so absurd, it’s difficult to imagine that what we are watching on screen actually emerged from a real human being’s brain. For instance, in order to verse-jump, the characters need to perform some sort of very strange and very specific task, like inflicting themselves with numerous paper cuts on their hand, or professing their love sincerely for the person they are battling. The black hole that Jobu Tupaki has created that threatens to break down the multiverse takes the form of an everything bagel. With the parallel universes that the other Evelyns exist in, we see the Daniels frequently, delightfully, reference other movies, from Wong Kar-wai and “In the Mood for Love” to an animated favorite that’s too good to spoil here. Some of them are just straight up bizarre, most notably when Evelyn’s mind isn’t fully prepped for a jump, and she ends up in a universe where everyone has hot dogs for hands. It’s funny, it’s fast, it’s impressive to look at (the special effects are far from the sterile computer graphics that dominate so many contemporary blockbusters, and were even more impressively achieved with a team of only five people, as explained in this article from The Wrap), but it all works because it isn’t just weird for weird’s sake. The Daniels back up the overwhelming chaos with a character-driven story that is incredibly heartfelt and sincere. Even that silly hot dog hand world ends up being the setting for a story about a couple struggling to make their relationship work. Most of us are likely at least tangentially familiar with the multiverse concept by now, particularly as it applies to comic book movies, like the recent Marvel smash “Spider-man: No Way Home.” But in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the idea never feels as stale as you’d think it would by now. A little confusing? Sure, and the fact that none of this makes a lot of sense is brought up within the film. But the multiverse does not exist as an excuse to pull in all kinds of different characters, and the villain is not solely an all-powerful being bent on world domination. Her ability to tap into her various selves grants Evelyn the ability to see what her life might have been, but also realize that there is no other place she’d rather be than right where she is. The fate of the multiverse hinges not on her defeating a bad person, but on repairing her fractured relationship with her daughter. Evelyn also gains a newfound appreciation for Waymond. When his body is overtaken, Waymond turns into an entirely different person: active, agile, forthright, intelligent. But she comes to realize that her sensitive Waymond has always had his own strengths, she just never really recognized them. In fact, she takes a second to recognize the needs of everyone around her, her usual hyper-focus on her many tasks finally broken. The kill them with kindness climax sounds a little maudlin on paper, but on screen, realized by the Daniels and by their incredible cast, the film’s utter lack of cynicism is nothing short of moving.
And it’s that cast that is responsible for a good chunk of the film’s success. Yeoh has been a steady presence in movies since the 1990s, appearing in films both in China and the United States, but the majority of her English-language roles have kept her in support, recognizing her talents (particularly her background in martial arts movies) but never really shining the full spotlight on her. The Daniels give Yeoh the space to be the star that she is, and she is more than up for the challenge of tackling multiple different versions of the same character, while also conveying a sense of humor and a sense of regret that makes Evelyn sympathetic even when the things she says and does come off as mean. Hsu matches her beat for beat with a performance that gets to be wacky and big during some of the wilder scenes, and frustrated and broken during the more grounded sequences. And while Yeoh gets to step into a leading role in a big way here, delivering the performance of a lifetime, this also feels like new territory for Quan, who most audiences are likely familiar with from his child roles in the 80s classics “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” For someone who has only had a handful of feature film roles in the years since then, this is Quan as we’ve never seen him, appearing in a big, complex role that is funny and sweet and really pulls on the viewers’ heartstrings (he also deftly handles the transition in personality between regular Waymond and Alpha Waymond). And by centering their story on a Chinese-American family, the Daniels craft a unique immigrant story that resonates through all the noise.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” ends where it began: with taxes. The certainty of the irritating task is still there, but the exhaustion associated with it is gone. The film, finally, slows down. We get the sense that Evelyn’s attention may still be somewhat divided, but her headspace is different. Life is exhausting, and it may take a multiverse-spanning event to sort through it all. But if this film proves anything, it’s that there is happiness to be found in the simplest tasks, and power to be found in kindness.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 139 minutes. Rated R.