Multiverses are all the rage right now. What was once a theoretical concept in quantum physics is now a storytelling device that mainstream audiences have fully accepted, either to bask in the spectacle of multiple Spider-Men swinging together onscreen or to stress that every niche of today’s multimedia franchises is an essential piece of a much bigger cinematic universe. Enter filmmaking duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) who are proven masters of evoking the profound from the absurd as seen with their first feature Swiss Army Man, returning with a sophomore film that finds a new cinematic purpose for the idea of parallel universes – Everything Everywhere All at Once fuses realms of infinite possibility to interrogate an achingly human insecurity: “what if I made different choices in my life?”
Everything Everywhere All at Once follows Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant who owns and operates a laundromat with her compassionate but absent-minded husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Evelyn’s rocky relationship with her rebellious daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and her traditionalist father (James Hong) come to a boiling point after Joy tries to introduce her girlfriend (Tallie Medel) at a family party. To add to her troubles, Evelyn’s failing business is being ruthlessly audited, and during a meeting with her IRS officer (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is whisked away from her unexceptional life into a janitorial closet with an alternate timeline Waymond, who warns that she is the only person who can save the multiverse from the Jobu Tupaki, a highly-skilled inter-dimensional warlord obsessed with melting all existence into total oblivion.
Once Kwan and Scheinert kick the plot into gear, it becomes apparent that Everything Everywhere All at Once fully lives up to its title. Despite its initial mundane setting, the film evolves into an amazingly scaled sci-fi blockbuster, then it crashes into a martial arts action epic, a tender family drama, a low-brow slapstick comedy, and a neon soaked Wong Kar-Wai-esque romance – the Daniels defying genre with the ease of turning a dial. It’s a testament to both their precise directorial control and the strength of our main cast that they can slip into these different modes seamlessly and with so much authenticity.
Each of our main cast has a moment to shine; Stephanie Hsu asserts herself as a breakout talent and Ke Huy Quan’s first return to the big screen since Temple of Doom is extremely satisfying, but there’s a case to be made that Everything Everywhere feels like a grand celebration of Michelle Yeoh’s entire cinematic career. It’s built to showcase all of her strengths as an actress, from her kung-fu icon status in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Supercop to her enigmatic dramatic roles like The Lady or Moonlight Express. Very rarely do actresses of her age and status like Yeoh get to play in a creative sandbox a film like this offers, and she fully steps up to the challenge, reaffirming her presence as one of our greatest movie stars.
But as ambitious and large-scale as Everything Everywhere All at Once is, Kwan and Scheinert’s biggest accomplishments lie in their narrative restraint, never once diverting their interest away from their story’s emotional core. While the Daniels take us on a journey through the multiverse, the heart of the film is still firmly planted in the everlasting power of a mother’s love for her daughter, even when they are paralleled on the road to self-destruction. As the film jumps through the rabbit hole of the surreal and meta, there’s a heartwarming sincerity to its family drama that grounds every moment against the darkness of cynicism. It’s a film that seeks to remind us that we were all at once young people with hopes and dreams, including our own parents. Evelyn, Joy, and even Waymond all get to break through their archetypal dysfunctional family roles and become multi-dimensional characters, both in a satisfying, literal and figurative sense.
As the son of a strong Chinese mother who came to America and raised our family while managing her donut shop, this film has specifically touched me in ways I had never known were possible. As I watched this familial dispute play out through googly-eyed rocks and weiner dog fingers, I realized how inextricable these characters’ collective experiences as an immigrant family were from the iconography of the film – the multiverse is utilized here as a way to express the inherently fractured nature of multicultural identity.
To defeat the Jobu Tupaki, Evelyn must harness the power of all other alternate versions of herself: the Evelyns that didn’t run from her parents to America to be with Waymond, and the Evelyns that have committed and mastered certain skills that she had abandoned in her pursuit of the American dream. Joy’s struggle to forge her own path and be accepted not only as an individual, but also be seen as a lesbian in the eyes of her mother and grandpa is born from the leftover scars of the traditional Chinese family, and her role in the multiverse is a byproduct of unresolved generational trauma. Although the anxieties of Asian-American diaspora are not always the primary focus of the story at large here, it does thoughtfully ground Daniels’ script in a way that makes an already engaging film feel even more inspired.
Though its 139 min runtime can be felt, Kwan and Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once is the platonic ideal of what modern blockbuster filmmaking should be. They’ve built an action-packed vehicle to tribute Michelle Yeoh’s cinematic legacy and injected it with all the pathos of an emotional, life-affirming domestic drama. The duo proves once again that films can be original and intellectually stimulating while also being provocative and juvenile, that infinite cinematic spectacle can also be found in the humble mundanity of human existence, and that the hero of the multiverse could be someone like my own mother. In an era where the non-franchised, original mid-budget movie seems to be extinct, films like this one are proof of their everlasting power.