A head-spinning sci-fi adventure and passionate love letter to star Michelle Yeoh, the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once is a movie that delivers on its title, a supersized sci-fi adventure so deliriously realized and assembled it all but leaves you awestruck. For all its conceptual ingenuity, scale and imagination, its neatest trick is its human emotions, sneaking up for a wallop.
In a try-to-keep-up narrative ambitiously deploying a fantastical context to examine love, family and the many directions a life might take, Yeoh, the international star whose career spans nearly four decades across countries and genres, is both great fun and touchingly sincere as one Evelyn Wang, a harried, disillusioned wife, mother and business owner facing a multitude of tests on the most important day of the year, the annual customer bash commemorating the family’s laundromat business.
The first and biggest comes in the form of an I.R.S. auditor played with officious relish by Jamie Lee Curtis in what eventually evolves toward a substantial role and performance. The second involves the surprise divorce papers from meek husband Waymond, with whom Evelyn ran away decades earlier against the wishes of her demonstrative father, Gong Gong (Henry Wong), who despite disowning his daughter has ironically just arrived from China for an ill-timed visit.
Evelyn and husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) live a cramped, mundane existence above the struggling wash emporium, a far cry from their romantic, youthful zeal. And then there’s lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), desperate for approval from tiger mom Evelyn, who fears her daughter’s orientation and girlfriend (Tallie Medel) will prove too much to handle for her own imperious father. For Evelyn, the combined weight of these stressors triggers something of an existential crisis—what’s the point of life if your relationships are unsatisfying and everything feels like a series of bitterly wasted opportunities?
Evelyn’s personal pressure cooker is shattered by a narrative leap impossible to concisely describe, but the gist is that a portal to a multitude of distinct other universes suddenly opens, and across those universes exist dozens of versions of Evelyn herself, all having paved different life paths with varying outcomes—the glamorous actress at the premiere of her new movie, the good-with-a-blade hibachi chef, an opera singer, unlikely lesbian girlfriend in a world where humans have hot dogs for fingers (and play pianos with their toes), a birthday party piñata twisting in the wind, a rock on a rugged land unable to sustain human life and more. The Daniels have sensational fun zig-zagging between these different versions of the self, each with a unique perspective or skill set, and with how Evelyn’s actions in one have reverberations in the others.
Why is Evelyn being summoned? In a terrific turn by Quan (the former child star of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies), modest Waymond morphs into an adept, confident fighting machine from another universe who, not unlike The Terminator’s John Connor, has punched through to our cosmos in the hopes that Evelyn, with her good heart and values, will be the savior of the multiverse. To do so she must battle stealth, megalomaniacal “agent of chaos” Jobu Tupacki (Hsu), whose floating, orb-like bagel may just offer a universal truth (or something like that).
This sets up a showdown between multiple versions of heroine/villainess and mother/daughter, Evelyn representing ultimate good and Jobu an evil wishing to control, or perhaps unravel, objective truth in human existence across the multiverse. This battle royale plays out across multiple cosmic planes where each opponent is able to “verse jump” from one universe to another, the Daniels mounting a wealth of circuitous, narrative spirals requiring the audience to keep up while the breakneck pace encourages us to just sit back and enjoy this very fast, very fun ride.
Influences on full display, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert nodding to the paradoxes of The Matrix, grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey, dreamy romanticism of In the Mood for Love, comic speed of Ratatouille, contemplation of Sliding Doors and even, at times, the outlandish aesthetic of Power Rangers (how’s that for an amalgam?!) in a special movie about a life unrealized that springs into wild self-actualization. That this realization takes place across dozens of universes and is told with such daring leaps makes this propulsive movie destined to be an instant cult classic.
Despite such callouts to higher profile films, oddly enough I was perhaps most reminded of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 fantasy drama Peggy Sue Got Married, in which a never-better Kathleen Turner, approaching middle age and soon to be divorced from her disappointing, once high school sweetheart Nicolas Cage, collapses at her class reunion only to wake up back in time as a high school senior with adult memories intact but a bright future ahead should she course correct. If Everything Everywhere All At Once doesn’t quite offer the same second chance to its lead character, it certainly provides a similar, poignant understanding of mid-life malaise and the tantalizing prospect of a do-over. Turner was rewarded with an Oscar nod for her Peggy Sue turn; with any luck, Yeoh will garner the same kudos.
Despite the visual and narrative sophistication on display, Everything Everywhere All At Once ultimately works on the considerable drama of a life unlived, its conceit offering Evelyn a number of “what if” propositions suggesting that each of us has hidden or buried talents and abilities we may have always possessed but which remain untapped. This notion, of emerging from behind our limiting beliefs and discovering new capacities for change, healing or reclamation of who we really are or want to be, is what the Daniels are getting at here, and Yeoh plays every note to perfection.
The picture builds on and deepens these notions as it goes and Yeoh, the regal international superstar born in Malaysia of Chinese heritage whose presence suggests a perfect combination of physical prowess and soulful gravitas, gives equal weight to Evelyn’s clashes within and without; we care as deeply about her melancholy as we are giddy at her exploits. As an actress she has a considerable toolkit, evidenced in scores of pictures including high-profile work in Ang Lee’s romantic adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Brosnan Bond outing Tomorrow Never Dies and much more.
A former beauty queen and classically trained dancer without a traditional martial arts acumen who began her career in a 1985 television commercial opposite Jackie Chan, Yeoh is an equally comfortable dramatist in pictures like the Cinderella shiny Crazy Rich Asians or as the matriarch warrior in Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings. In this picture, which she co-produced, the Daniels may have provided her to-date best role.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is the best new movie of 2022, and Yeoh’s star turn is unlikely to be equaled for much of this year.