By Maribeth Thueson
Everything Everywhere All at Once is the most bonkers film you will see this year, but it’s also one of the best. It is astonishingly original, a frenetic display of bravura editing, and a wacky mix of action, comedy, and touching domestic drama. At times its chaos threatens to spin out of control, but it is anchored by the great Michelle Yeoh, who gives the film its heart and soul.
Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang who is having a really bad day. Her husband, Waymond, gives her divorce papers, her daughter won’t pretend she’s not gay, her disapproving father is having a birthday, and she has to organize the party, and on top of everything else, the family’s laudromat business is being audited by the IRS. But on the way to the audit, strange things start to happen. Evelyn gets whisked into a cleaning closet where the usually mild-mannered Waymond, seemingly possessed by a much more forceful personality, tells her that a monster is approaching the Earth, and she is the only one who can stop it and save the universe.
Evelyn is the sort of person who usually is a supporting character in other peoples’ stories, a middle-aged woman who is easily overlooked and isn’t very important. Like most of us, in other words. We all have problems with our families, problems at work, or problems with money, and our lives are more boring than we would like them to be.
What makes Evelyn special is that she is uniquely qualified to save the world because of the bad choices she’s made – in fact, every single time she made a choice in her life, she made the wrong one. It turns out that every time she made a bad decision, her counterpart in another universe made the opposite decision. All she has to do is skip through all the other universes to inhabit her other selves and access their skills and knowledge, so she can confront the monster, who looks suspiciously like Evelyn’s daughter. And since she has made more bad decisions than anyone else, she also has more other selves who have made good decisions to learn from.
Waymond – or rather, one of his other selves – shows her how to skip through universes, and soon she is whipping in and out of her other lives: in one universe she is a version of the real Michelle Yeoh, a glamorous star of kung fu movies. In a different universe she is a chef, and in another, a Japanese traditional opera singer. In one universe everyone is animated, and in another everyone has hot dogs for fingers. At one point Evelyn is whipping through universes so fast that the editing can barely keep up, and then suddenly there’s a scene in a universe that’s totally silent and still, and it’s one of the funniest scenes in the film. Marvel is making a big deal out of playing with the multiverse, but Everything’s use of the multiverse is much more creative.
The rest of the cast is outstanding. Waymond is played with sensitivity by Ke Huy Quan, better known as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (and where’s he been all these years?). James Hong plays Evelyn’s crabby father, and Stephanie Hsu does double duty and Evelyn’s daughter Joy, who’s hurting from their ruptured relationship, and as the monster, dressed in dazzling outfits while calmly threatening to destroy all of creation. But Jamie Lee Curtis steals the show as unpleasant IRS auditor Deirdre Beaubeidra, wrinkles and fat rolls on full display, threatening Evelyn with foreclosure and showing off her row of oddly-shaped employee awards. Deirdre has other selves, too, and in every case Curtis is hilarious.
The great part about Everything is that the whiz-bang is all in the service of a pretty simple story about the healing of Evelyn’s relationships with her husband, father, and especially her daughter, as she learns to understand herself and the consequences of her missed opportunities. Whether the fantastical events are real, take place only in Evelyn’s imagination, or are only a metaphor doesn’t really matter. Don’t try to figure it out; just enjoy the ride and the lovely ending.