Images in Review: Anything goes in Everything Everywhere All at Once

John Aste

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is so radically new and original you leave the theater with a changed perception of what movies can be, what they can do, and where they are going.

I can’t quite figure out if Everything Everywhere All at Once is such a film. Its story is certainly unusual, chaotic, and, at times, illogical — which, to me, are good things — though you wouldn’t know it by how the movie begins. It opens in a typical laundromat owned by Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and her meek husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) as they prepare to celebrate Lunar New Year. They have a teenage daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). She wants to introduce her girlfriend her tradition-bound grandfather Gong Gong (James Hong), who has come all the way from China. Everything seems perfectly normal.

Except, it isn’t. When Evelyn, Waymond, and Gong Gong go to the IRS office to complete their tax audit with the help (and hindrance) of the hilariously drab Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), the ground is pulled from beneath their feet. Waymond’s personality and mannerisms suddenly change as he reveals to Evelyn that he comes from a parallel universe and that he has chosen her to save all of existence from the evil, unstoppable villain called Jobu Tupaki. Confused? So was I, and so is Evelyn. We see the movie from her perspective (quite literally, as the camera sometimes films from a first-person point of view) and her befuddlement at Waymond’s talk of different universes, each one containing an alternate version of the film’s characters, is ours as well.

Alpha Waymond — the version of Waymond we first meet from another universe — teaches Evelyn how to “verse-jump,” a process invented by the alternate Evelyn from his world, by which people can inhabit their parallel selves and borrow their skills. I don’t want to give the false impression that this is a movie overly bound by the rules of its own internal logic; in fact, I don’t think we’re supposed to fully get it. The multiverse set-up is an opportunity to unleash chaos — the silly and the supernatural — upon Evelyn’s supposedly “normal” life.

It’s also a vehicle for her to re-evaluate her past, as she experiences the possibilities of the kind of life she could have led if she hadn’t left China and come to America with Waymond. Whenever she “verse-jumps,” Evelyn absorbs all of her alternate self’s memories through flashback. Each encounter with a life seemingly more accomplished and fulfilled than her own fills her with a sense of regret and disorientation at all of the opportunities she has missed. The conflict between possibility and reality, ambition and sacrifice, is what makes Evelyn such a compelling character. Michelle Yeoh draws on this internal richness in her masterful performance, perfectly distilling why Evelyn feels so alienated from both her old and new homes.

This feeling of alienation is best captured by Evelyn’s relationship with Joy, her daughter, who — I’m not spoiling much by revealing this — turns out to be the film’s mysterious villain, Jobu Tupaki, though it might be more accurate to call her a victim. Jobu Tupaki experiences every version of herself, everywhere, all at once. Her character works on two levels: both as an interesting sci-fi concept in the film’s multiverse plotline and, more broadly, as a metaphor for second-generation American immigrants. The constant push-and-pull Jobu Tupaki feels from every angle at every moment is the same thing that frustrates Joy about her family and life at home. And yet, for all the gravity of these ideas, the film never loses its sense of humor. In order to try and escape from her unbearable reality, Jobu Tupaki creates a strange and dangerous “black hole” that turns out to be, quite literally, an everything bagel — a bagel with everything in the universe on it.

This may sound ridiculous. It is — in a good way. Daniels (creative duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), the writer-directors of the film, often mingle the mundane, the silly, and the supernatural to great effect. The film is at once a coherent account of Evelyn’s quest to save Joy from herself and a disjointed patchwork of a million different little stories from a million alternate movies. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a martial arts movie, a spoof of Ratatouille, a bizarre work of science fiction, a very funny comedy, and a drama of family and belonging all wrapped into one, giant, everything bagel. The Daniels switch between places and times so effortlessly, without ever totally losing the audience, and in such a way that could only be achieved on film (for example, changing the aspect-ratio or tint of the image when moving from one world to another) that the final product is nothing short of an audacious miracle.

Yet, Everything Everywhere All at Once might just be a little too much. There were times during the film when I felt that the breathless pace of its editing, the stunning multiplicity of its imagery, and the restless ambition of its scope covered for a lack of real substance underneath. For all of its irreverence, the story is, at times, surprisingly conventional. The critic’s quote posted on the Images website, taken from SlashFilm, says that it’s “unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” I’m not sure that I agree. Our culture is so suffused with multiverses, cross-overs, and lightning-paced stories, that Everything Everywhere All at Once sometimes feels a bit thin and mundane when it’s not supposed to. Daniels’ film keeps sight of its family plotline for the most part, but loses it at times in the thick of all its chaos. I wonder just how truly original the movie really is underneath all of that razzle-dazzle.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, though. Perhaps to expect so much of this film — to think that it would blow my mind — was unreasonable. It may be more accurate to think of this movie as a small amount of really good jam spread over an impossibly large piece of bread. The jam is wonderful, new, fascinating, and hilarious, and if it occasionally gets a little thin — if the delicious acting or more interesting ideas are stretched to their limits — its basic quality more than makes up for the loss. That the film holds together at all is a marvelous achievement, and it luckily never takes itself too seriously. It might not change your universe, but for a short while Everything Everywhere All at Once can take you to another one, and for that it is well worth seeing.

Images is screening Everything Everywhere All at Once until April 21.