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DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
FEATURING: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong
PLOT: Evelyn Wang is barely keeping it together, running a business and raising a family while the threat of an IRS audit hangs over her head; as if that wasn’t enough stress, just before a last-chance appointment with her stern auditor, a visitor from a parallel universe tells her the fate of the multiverse lies in her hands.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Based on the trailer, I had originally assumed this was going to be Daniels’ mainstream popcorn movie: a sci-fi/action/comedy not likely to be significantly weirder than The Matrix or the latest Marvel Phase 4 offering. And while there were plenty of wisecracks, kung fu free -for-alls, sentimentality, and CGI frippery, the makers of Swiss Army Man snuck enough genuine weirdness and unpredictability into the formula that, as the credits rolled, a young theater patron was moved to loudly announce “bizarre is the only word that describes that.”
COMMENTS: Evelyn is a hot mess: a hot mess in a quiet, middle-aged matron kind of way, but a hot mess nevertheless. Harried and constantly distracted, she vainly tries to balance running her laundry business with an overextended social life. She also has to deal with the family members constantly vying for her attention: neglected husband Waymond, lesbian daughter Joy and her new girlfriend, and disapproving, ailing father Gong Gong. It’s no wonder that Evelyn’s 1040 was selected for audit, and that she’s having enough trouble filling out the forms correctly and collecting the proper receipts and documentation that the business is in danger. And so it’s also little surprise that, when told by an interdimensional emissary that the fate of the entire multiverse depends on her, her response is an exasperated “Very busy today, no time to help you.”
But of course, help she reluctantly does. After the setup, the movie reveals its relatively complicated mechanics about infinite universes that branch off at individual’s decision points (i.e., marry Waymond or don’t marry Waymond creates a new universe, as does eating eggs for breakfast instead of noodles), all leading to a network of bubble universes that are visualized as nodes on a smartphone app. A helpful avatar of her husband from the “Alpha” universe explains the evil force threatening all existence (which involves a “bagel of everything”) and how Evelyn can access the skills and knowledge of versions of herself from parallel universes to counter it. So she does, with both badass successes and wacky failures along the way.
With its focus on branching realities, the Canonically Weird movie Everything Everywhere all at Once most resembles is Mr. Nobody (2009) rather than Swiss Army Man. In fact, it’s Nobody to the nth degree: where Jaco Van Dormael‘s cult classic confined itself to three main alternate histories (with notable detours like the argyle universe), Everything attempts to live up to its title with dozens upon dozens of alternate realities, from simple ones where Evelyn is a martial arts expert or a movie star to bizarre worlds where she’s a piñata, a sentient rock, or (the audience’s favorite) a lesbian in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers. Adding to the eccentricity, the Daniels posit that it’s necessary to seed a jump to a new universe by performing an unpredictable action like eating an entire tube of ChapStick or—in another audience favorite scene—finding an unconventional use for a suggestively shaped IRS auditor’s award.
The script requires almost every actor to play multiple roles, and the ensemble acting is about as good as it gets. Everyone shines, although naturally it’s Yeoh who holds it all together with a performance that recalls (and references) her Hong Kong roots in wuxia films, as well as her recent turn to comedy with Crazy Rich Asians. And a special kudos have to be given to 93-year-old James Hong, for whom this would be an excellent cherry on the top of an incredible 450-role career (except that he still has more films coming out, and may be trying to hit 500 credits before he passes the century mark).
Ultimately, all the apocalyptic furor relates to events in Evelyn’s real universe—uh, the universe we started in, that is. My only slight reservation is with the ending, which gets a bit sappy in delivering its honorably intended “love yourself, faults and all” message. On the other hand, not everyone is a black-hearted cynic like me, and most audience members seemed as moved by the film’s pathos as they were invigorated by its action and amused by its comedy. In the end, this impressive feature comes pretty close to delivering Everything, with bizarre and imaginative conceits delivered at a hyper pace that does make it sometimes seem like they’re happening All at Once. Everything Everywhere all at Once is recommended for everyone everywhere as soon as you can.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an explosion of creative weirdness that is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming… It’s ground-breaking because it allows a new perspective, but it’s also just blatantly weird. It’s not glossy or careful; the film is an onslaught of visual and thematic ideas… In an era of sequels and remakes, something this outside the box is a welcome alternate reality.”–Emily Zemler, Observer (contemporaneous)