A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once (in theaters now) is a fantastical tale of self-discovery wrapped in a high-flying, cross-cutting, intriguingly conceptual action spectacle. It stars Michelle Yeoh, an actor who can do anything, doing everything we know she can do and then some. As Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant who’s trapped (she feels) in an unfulfilling marriage and struggling to keep her family’s humble laundromat afloat, Yeoh gives us the dramatic gravitas of a woman held down by her unmet potential. As Evelyn’s other, alternative selves — concurrent versions of the same woman, all of them shaped by the different choices they’ve made throughout their lives — Yeoh gives us a masterful action star, a poised and proper movie icon, an operatic diva, a put-upon teppanyaki chef, a sensitive queer woman with hot dog fingers… Some of which resemble roles Yeoh has played before. Others could just as well be drawn from Yeoh’s own life.
It takes magic or, in this particular movie’s case, a multiverse, to bring so many aspects of one character’s personality to life — and a multiverse is precisely what Everything Everywhere, with its heady mix of styles and a Bible’s worth of genre-flipping cinematic shout-outs and cultural references, has in mind. But for an international movie star as skilled and varied as Yeoh, who thankfully has the credits and career endurance to match her talent, you don’t need a multiverse: Her filmography already speaks for itself. You get her early, Hong Kong girls-with-guns feature Yes, Madam (1986), a peak of its genre, alongside the Brosnan-era Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1998); a turn-of-the-century wuxia throwback (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) next to fraught period dramas (The Lady and Memoirs of a Geisha) and modern, romantic pop confections (Crazy Rich Asians). She’s done Star Trek; she’s done Marvel; she’s part of the Jackie Chan Cinematic Universe. Maybe all that was missing, until this newest movie, was the one-volume omnibus, the career retrospective packed into two hours.
And that is part, but only part, of the joy and the joke. Everything Everywhere All At Once was written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the collaborative filmmaking pair known publicly as the Daniels, and it bears the mark of their work to date, as pop-attuned and insistently creative as their music videos, with more than its share of teen-boyish comedic hijinks. (See also: Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent corpse in 2016’s Swiss Army Man, the pair’s directorial debut.) It doesn’t all work; some of its bits get annoying with repetition, and its world-conquering emotional optimism drifts into limpid sentimentality. Then again, indiscretion isn’t the same as indecision. I was less moved by the emotional contours of the movie’s plot than by the sincerity baked into its concept from the start — but all this ultimately means is that the movie has succeeded at the hard part.
It starts with tax problems. Evelyn runs a laundromat with her husband, Waymond (the great Ke Huy Quan), under the implacable eye of her father, Gong Gong (played James Hong, yet another legend), and without much help from the couple’s somewhat dispirited daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who dates women and has grown wary of her family’s reluctant acceptance of that fact. The IRS, embodied by a starkly eyebrowed Jamie Lee Curtis, is on the family’s ass; the laundromat is one small misstep from being repossessed. This pales in comparison to the fact that, somewhere in the multiverse in which Everyone Everywhere pans out, an Alphaverse supervillain named Jobu Tupaki is raising hell. She must be stopped! Who but Michelle Yeoh could endure such a challenge?
It takes some intervention from another Waymond, one who isn’t of Evelyn’s reality, to school her on who she really is, what she can really do. This is part of the movie’s most insightful and moving strand. Yes, the fate of the multiverse is at stake, but what matters just as much is that this panoply of worlds is populated by Evelyns who are Evelyn, only with the benefit of other, more empowered choices. Every fork in the road of a life, the movie tells us, results in alternate versions of ourselves. The Evelyn we know, whose broke-down laundromat is about to be co-opted by a Jamie Lee Curtis with a collection of butt plugs in her cubicle (don’t ask), has shied away — been pushed away — from the personal and professional choices that may have steered her toward some fuller version of herself. Meanwhile, those fuller versions are all out there, living their realities as the aforementioned divas all played by Yeoh, endowed with skills — grace, poise, a kick-ass attitude — that Evelyn does not have but, crucially, could have had. And which Yeoh herself, playing each of these Evelyns in an increasingly ingenious array of alternating scenes, proves that she obviously has.
So Evelyn — the one closest to our own reality — must learn to draw upon these versions of herself, in a literal sense. One of the more clever turns of Everything Everywhere is its approach to skill acquisition, which, in a movie like The Matrix, was as comparatively straightforward as a series of programs uploaded into Keanu Reeves’ skull. Daniels have fashioned this movie into something closer to an RPG; skills must be earned. Evelyn must learn to level up. Which demands stepping outside of herself to the furthest realities of her own behavior, using her wits, stripping herself of shame and hesitancy, and diving headfirst into the wreck of nonsense that the filmmakers have created. It also means that Yeoh and her co-stars must navigate the fulsome range of styles Daniels have set up for them. A gritty-glamorous romance by way of Wong Kar-Wai, for example, full of that director’s visual trademarks, the ecstatically speed-ramped images and overtly textured lighting. A training montage out of the kung fu movie playbook. A cute Ratatouille riff involving a raccoon. It’s comically postmodern to the point of feeling almost retro, which also describes Everything Everywhere’s sense of action, its enriched sense of comedy colliding violence, practical materials (like fanny packs) taking their ranks amid the physically superhuman feats of choreography — a mix many of us rightly associate with Jackie Chan.
The references make for pleasing pastiche. A few even manage to be salient by pointing back toward the careers and histories of the stars themselves: Yeoh’s work with Chan, for example, or, even more slyly, Quan ’s work with Wong Kar-Wai (whose romantic drama 2046 Wang assistant-directed). It’s as goofy as it is riffy, and it’s not always energizing; some jokes or referential nods feel more belabored than others. Maybe least satisfying is the sexual humor, not because it’s crass, but because the gross-out approach feels a little one-note (as fun as it is to see someone cannonball onto a butt plug). But the stars manage, somehow, to make it mostly feel worth it — not least in the case of Quan, who had once stepped away from the movie business thanks to a lack of good roles (and proves especially good as a hunky hero in this one), and Wang, a younger star who clearly relishes the chance to play good and bad, sexy-vicious and troubled, all within the same movie. (The only thing that’s missing, on this front, is more variety from James Hong — an actor whose number of movie credits is its own superheroic feat.)
Movies about multiverses sometimes spend too much time explaining themselves. There can be quite a bit to chomp through, from the what, to the how, to the impending dramatic implications of it all. But Everything Everywhere doesn’t really start to sag under the weight of its concept until the last act, which plays a little too much like a compilation of extraordinary emotional resolutions: a series of discussions all rhythmically intercut to the point of obscuring their otherwise straightforward melodrama. It’s a season finale’s worth of material packed into one elongated stretch of a movie, and the material is maybe not up to the grandiose approach of the filmmaking. Essentially, everyone hugs it out. Real selves and parallel selves, all at once. The endgame isn’t quite up to the movie’s game. But the game is onto something.