What you need to know
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ fully lives up to its title.
The pre-trailer, spoiler-proof plot synopsis said that Everything Everywhere All at Once is about “a woman trying to pay her taxes.” This is like giving the same synopsis for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. However nonsensical, the most accurate way to describe this film is as a multiverse of pop cultural homages linked by absurdity, at the core of which is a heart of gold. Never have I seen a film with such scope and ambition succeed so marvelously.
Here’s the setup: Ethnically Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊) is organizing her laundromat’s receipts ahead of a meeting with IRS auditor Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis); prepping a Chinese New Year party that will satisfy her nitpicky father-in-law (James Hong 吳漢章; his character’s name, Gong Gong, just means “father of one’s husband”); trying to keep daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and Joy’s girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) from coming out to Gong Gong while still appearing supportive of them; and, unbeknownst to her, she’s about to be served divorce papers by husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan 關繼威; thank God he’s acting again!) as part of a hail mary to rejuvenate their marriage — all on the same day. Then she learns in the weirdest possible way that she’s the last great hope to save the multiverse from a verse-jumping agent of chaos named Jobu Tupaki.
And I thought my week was bad.
Unlike in most multiverse films (I’m looking at you, Marvel), here only one’s consciousness can verse-jump, by means of a double-eared bluetooth gizmo and an act of extremely low probability; the lower the probability, the more distant a universe one can reach. Most of the low humor stems from these actions, be it eating chapstick, declaring undying love to an enemy, or sticking an award statuette up one’s . . . you know.
By verse-jumping, one can acquire skills that an alternate-universe self has learned. This is where the film gets very meta, as most of the universes are based on other films, à la Kingdom Hearts (production design by Jason Kisvarday). The writer-director duo known as Daniels (Kwan 關家永 and Scheinert, respectively) give us two kinds of universe. One kind merely grants Evelyn a specific skill, such as enhanced lung capacity (Peking opera singer) or extra-strong pinky fingers (martial artist). Then there are those that present her with a viable alternate self (costumes designed by Shirley Kurata): as a movie star, or having hot dogs for fingers.
Yes, though at first presented as a gag, the hot dog hands universe gradually accumulates meaning and pathos to convey an aspect of life that the Evelyn of this universe has never experienced. The film unearths , transforms the banal into the sublime. The philosophy-minded among you (by which I mean me) might even say that these reversals are the first great dialectical trick up the film’s Hegelian sleeve. In the early going you might find some plot elements to be clichéd or frivolous, but, trust me, everything in this 140-minute film is there for a reason. The climax resolution is a particularly dialectical delight, clawing a surprising yet utterly fitting synthesis out of the jaws of the “bad infinity” of antithesis.
The other great trick is that, somehow — impossible though it may sound — the film fully lives up to its title. Through canny casting (by Sarah Finn) and perfectly pitched existential allegory, a single theme resonates through and unites the multiverse; and form echoes substance in that the many universes themselves are connected by Yeoh’s consistent acting and the superhuman talents of editor Paul Rogers. Seriously, if he doesn’t win an Oscar I’ll eat my trilby. Whether it’s match-cutting to follow Evelyn’s verse-jumps, or cross-cutting to develop the theme in several universes at once, the film is always on the go, building toward a climax so emotionally powerful that a split-second shot of two planets colliding (by cinematographer Larkin Seiple) feels like an understatement.
Just to really hammer home how galaxy-brained the title is: The first part of the film, which sets things up, is titled “Everything”; the second part, in which Evelyn takes action by linking the multiverse, is titled “Everywhere”; and the “All at Once” part comes just before the end credits, when it’s all been resolved.
Miraculously, none of this is confusing — provided you read the subtitles. True to the Chinese diasporic experience, the lingua franca of this immigrant family is Mandarin. They speak English with the outside world (and Joy speaks it always, which, you know, might be symbolic), and in a private moment Evelyn and Waymond speak Cantonese, but in the rush of daily life everyone but Joy speaks Mandarin, with English words sprinkled in where more efficient or accurate (after all, the world around them is the English-speaking California). Throughout the Chinese diaspora, underneath the English of the Westernized world resides Mandarin, the cultural lingua franca. (The subtitles also help in the universe with telepathic dialogue.)
I’m almost out of words, and I haven’t even gotten to the mindblowingly low budget special effects (by just ); the inventive, humorous, and completely coherent fight sequences (coordinated by Timothy Eulich), reminiscent of films by Stephen Chow 周星馳 and Jackie Chan 陳龍 (Yeoh co-starred with Chan in 1992’s Police Story 3); the score by Son Lux and soundtrack including a Mitski song(!); or the fact that one of the universes is a Ratatouille (2007) parody featuring Raccaccoonie as voiced by Randy Newman (!!) — and that it, too, gains pathos. Also, the film has the MacGuffin to literally end all MacGuffins: a literal everything bagel.
The above rave notwithstanding, no film is perfect — or so I’ve been told. I can really only think of two issues. One is local: The Taiwanese subtitles (by @ndy) are sometimes a bit too frivolous and fail to keep up with the lightning fast tone reversals; he probably had to work directly from the script, and tone in writing is hard to catch (as Twitter addicts like me know).
The other issue is much bigger: Having authored the film to end all films, what the hell will Daniels follow it with?
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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