“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is probably the best American multiverse movie we’ll see and certainly the best and only one featuring Asian and Asian American talent ever produced to date.
I know that’s a big claim, but consider how Asians were treated in the Spider-man Multiverse and how the MCU seems to be heading toward having a White man who became a superhero by learning Asian mystic arts in Southeast Asia from a White woman at the center of their current cycle. This is where we’re at despite 2014 Disney “Big Hero Six” and the 2021 “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Yet, writers and directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the Daniels, have made a decidedly adult film. It is rated R for violence, sexual situations and language.
If you’ve seen the Daniels’ debut feature film, “Swiss Army Man,” you won’t be surprised. The 2016 surreal comedy (which starred Daniel Radcliffe as the corpse who is as useful as a Swiss Army knife for the sad sack protagonist Hank Thompson (Paul Dano)) was filled with jokes about flatulence and penile erections. When you think of it, that movie was one of three Daniels and there was a certain finesse in those fart jokes. Radcliffe and Dano were totally committed to the mad, quirky silliness and yet the Daniels also managed to find an emotional string to pull about loneliness. This film was also rated R and yet I never felt there was gratuitous nudity. The sexual content was sensitively, even coyly shot. If I have to be perfectly clear, I mean you won’t see naked penises.
In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” you will seen representations of naked penises. The R-rating for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a real shame because it will cut into the revenues and East Asian representation since younger audiences won’t be viewing this. Don’t try getting your kids in unless you are ready to explain very long and fleshy dildos and butt plugs. This is an adult martial arts film with a lot of laughs and imaginative action sequences and ridiculously silly science fiction situations such as a world where people have raw hotdog fingers. But the film also unpacks some serious issues within the context of the US film industry.
The plot whirls around a family of three and the film is divided into three sections: Everywhere, Everything and All at Once. We see what seems to be a picture of them during a happy moment before the camera leads us through it and into the dim and dingy dining room. The mom, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), has piles of receipts on a large table in her homey living space. Evelyn and her family live in the same place where they work: a laundromat. From where she sits, Evelyn can watch the closed circuit security cameras. Sometimes, the processed and folded laundry ends up in their very jumbled living quarters.
When she was young, Evelyn ran away with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) against the approval of Gong Gong Wang. Evelyn and Waymond had one child, a daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who is a lesbian in a committed relationship with Becky (Tallie Medel), but nothing about Joy’s demeanor expresses her name’s meaning.
Evelyn’s husband seems more hopeless than helpful. He loves putting googly eyes on things such as laundry or the broken dryer. Evelyn doesn’t have time for such silliness with the tax audit and her shaky understanding about what is considered business or personal expenses as well as the grandfather’s visit.
But before Evelyn meets with award-winning tax auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis). Something odd happens. Her husband Waymond begins to act strangely. He tells her that he is from another dimension and she is the one who will save the world. “Evelyn, I’m not your husband. I’m another version of him from another universe. I’m here because we need your help.”
There is a great evil, Jobu Tupaki, that has jumped into multiple universes and a mission has been set to find the one version of Evelyn to save all the worlds. Waymond explains, “Remember our mission concerns the fate of every single world of our infinite multiverse.” She needs to take them back to how it was supposed to be. Every decision she has made has created a branching universe. “Every rejection, every disappointment has led you here to this moment. Don’t let anything distract you from it.” Although Evelyn believes she can’t be the hero the world wants, alternate universe Waymond explains “it is because you’re so bad at everything” that she is capable of anything.
To go between universes, the people from alternative verse Waymond’s world (where Evelyn is dead) has developed, “verse jumping,” a way to “temporarily link your consciousness to another version of yourself, accessing all of their memories, their emotions and even their skills.”
To verse jump, the jumper must do something improbable or silly–say “I love you” and mean it to a someone trying to kill you or something as benign as eating lip balm. In her other lives, Evelyn is a Benihana-style teppanyaki chef, a singer, a movie star or a woman in love with Deidre with hotdog fingers in a world where feet are used like hands. There are no hotdog buns involved, but there is a bagel. After all, when you get involved in Chinese or Chinese American culture, food has to be connected somehow.
Despite this zany setup, there is message served up between the laughs about the repercussions of even our smallest actions. The Daniels have kept the pacing tight, and the linear plot in sight despite the jumping in between worlds. Kudos to the editor and to the sound design. The film aptly displays the versatility of both Yeoh and Quan and gives Hsu a chance to be ferocious.
There’s something beautiful here about seeing Yeoh and Hsu as frumpy, in clothes that won’t catch fashion anywhere as their prime universe characters and then see how they transform with some wild costuming choices.
The Hollywood Reporter originally noted that Awkwafina was in talks for the role of Joy. I’m glad that Hsu got the part instead because sometimes there can be too much of a good thing and I think that diversity in casting should also mean bringing different kinds of actors, even of the same race or ethnicity, into the picture.
After you see this film, you might be wondering where Ke Huy Quan (關繼威) has been. The Saigon-born Chinese Quan is 50. His family fled Vietnam in 1978 and ended up in a refugee camp. The family was granted political asylum in 1979. From there he became a SoCal boy, attending school in Tujunga and Alhambra. He went to college, but at the age of 12, Quan got his big break, playing Short Round, Indiana Jones’ (Harrison Ford) sidekick in the 1984 “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He was later in “The Goonies” (1985) as Richard “Data” Wang.
He had a cute round face that remained cute as he grew older, but he retired from acting in 2002 due to the few roles he found available. He was only 31. That should have been prime time for any other actor, or at least any White actor. Quan, to a large degree, is an indication of how little has changed and that I’ll call the Bruce Lee Litmus Test. He hasn’t been cast because the roles aren’t there for East Asian Americans. Things may be changing.
The Daniels have written and directed a film that shows the versatility of three actors of East Asian descent and given us a glimpse at what Hollywood has been missing in their whitewashing casting or story choices. Yet “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is more than that. It is a chance for each of us to consider how our decisions affected the course of our lives and that of others. It’s wildly inventive and entertaining and well worth watching more than once.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” made its premiere at South by Southwest (11 March 2022) and was given a limited release 25 March 2022. The film will go into wide release on 8 April 2022 by A24.