Directors: Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan
Stars: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis
Scheinert and Kwan – collectively ‘Daniels’ – garnered attention a few years ago with their wantonly strange and anarchic Daniel Radcliffe-is-a-corpse-with-a-boner movie Swiss Army Man; the absurdity of the project gathering the most comment. Still, this oddball calling card showed enough creativity and filmmaking nous to secure them the backing for this remarkable second venture. Everything Everywhere All At Once arrives on UK shores riding a wave of hype. US critics love it. It’s currently the highest rated narrative feature of all time on social movie-logging app Letterboxd. The shadow of the latest A24 curio falls long.
By happenstance – one imagines – the subject matter here falls in line with current trends in superhero blockbusters. The dreaded multiverse, predicated on the theory that every decision creates an alternate reality that plays out the opposing choice. Infinite alternatives no matter how minor or major. From someone missing a bus to the eradication of a species. For Marvel et al, this has proven a lucrative excuse for cameos and character resets. An increasingly meaningless mire in which nothing matters and no one is ever truly gone.
The Daniels have definitely latched on to the “nothing matters” concept, albeit from an altogether more existential angle. EEAAO concerns Evelyn Wang (Michele Yeoh), matriarch of an immigrant Chinese family eking out a modest existing running an American laundromat. Her faithful but weary husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is considering filing divorce papers in order to engender a confrontation. Her teenage daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is nervous about introducing her girlfriend to the family. And then there’s Evelyn’s customers and increasingly doddering father Gong Gong (James Hong) to contend with. On top of this, Evelyn is woefully unprepared for a tax audit. Life is hard enough.
It is during said audit with officious bureaucrat Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) that Evelyn’s world is turned upside down. Waymond is taken over by an alternate version of himself, who has dire news about an impending multiverse apocalypse. As startlingly, it seems only our Evelyn can avert it.
Middle aged, beleaguered and relatively unskilled, Evelyn needs to ‘slingshot’ herself to far-flung alternate realities in order to borrow talents from her other selves. The best way to do this? Perform actions that make no sense in this reality. Off of the back of this admirably imaginative concept, EEAAO explodes into an ever-accelerating action farce of boundless ambition. Like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, the film embraces martial arts, slapstick, meme culture, the brio of superhero narratives and much more besides. Every sequence broadens the spectrum of diverse realities at Evelyn’s disposal, until we’re zipping between Wong Kar Wai style hazy romances and a world in which humans have developed hot-dogs for fingers. Nothing is too random or wacky for the Daniels’ feverish Katamari ball. It looks as though it cost untold millions… but also takes place largely in an office building of dull cubicles.
The crux of the conflict, however, is surprisingly grim. A supreme multidimensional being (created by one of Evelyn’s other selves) is embracing a darkly nihilistic world(s)view, intent on sucking everything everywhere into a bagel-shaped vortex because – having seen everything – she has decided nothing matters. Doused all over with confetti sprinkles and silliness, this bleak, sucking core of the movie represents the kind of syrupy tonal clash one might find in a Flaming Lips song. Kaleidoscopic, rainbow hued… but embracing the cold hurt of despair.
In the process, EEAAO taps into an exceedingly timely sense of collective exhaustion. We’ve all been through a lot and it’s not letting up. Trump. COVID. Putin. James Corden. There’s an across-society yearn for a break or a pause. EEAAO‘s deliberately relentless pacing – and Evelyn’s constant sense of being on the back foot – proves an incredibly sharp reflection of our present milieu, in which satire is irrelevant because the world is simply too chaotic to parody. In this way it feels like it taps the zeitgeist like few others right now, speaking to people on a subconscious level about their own lives even as it blasts by at a pace too fast to suitably digest in one sitting.
This sense of largess extends to the greetings card sentimentality which Scheinert and Kwan layer on hard and thick come the catharsis of the third act, in which Evelyn and her daughter are forced to reconcile their differences, and Evelyn has to reckon with her own poor responses as a mother and a human being. Here, more specifically, the Daniels nail a very specific cross-generational sense of ache. An acknowledgement that changes in cultural values are immutable and inevitable. The old is grieved and the new scorned, but expending negativity on such change is futile. On top of that, EEAAO gives representation to the voices of immigrants dealing with seismic upheavals. This is very intentionally and to the film’s credit an Asian American story.
For a generation raised on the MCU and viral tweets, the creativity and zaniness of EEAAO will prove utterly irresistible. There’s more ingenuity and inventiveness here than in all of the Marvel series combined, while the try-hard humour is as evocative of Rick and Morty as Kung Fu Hustle. If that level of extreme hyperactivity is wearying to you, however, be warned that EEAAO is – as it’s maximalist title forewarns – A LOT. It wrestles with coherence, maintaining this for the first half before abandoning itself to the cascade after a mid-film fake finale, embracing a sense of cosmic free fall. At it’s best it conjures the same sense of handmade, left-field curiosity evidenced by the likes of Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry in the early ’00s. Immaculately choreographed and bracingly intricate (I can’t imagine how you schedule a movie like this), I’m immensely grateful that a film like this can be made at all, even if I personally found the experience both overwhelming and exhausting.
Maybe if nothing matters, the things you choose to matter then matter the most…