I’ve been a Michelle Yeoh fan going back to Supercop in the ’90s. She and Maggie Cheung and the late Anita Mui were kind of the chop-socky version of the American Scream Queen trio (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer), and were a credit to any film they were in. It was on the strength of that I ventured to the theater to see Everything Everywhere All At Once.
However, if I had known that Daniels had directed the picture, I would’ve gone without trepidation. Daniels is the name Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert go by when they’re directing music videos, but I know them for their freshman feature effort, 2016’s Swiss Army Man. The simplest possible review is probably the most accurate one: If you liked that, you’ll probably like this, too, because it is very, very tonally similar. Or, to put it in another light, this is the Matrix trilogy, if 2/3rds of the Matrix trilogy didn’t suck.
In EEAAO, Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant running a hectic laundry business that she’s trying to expand. She’s getting heat from a goblin IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) for her copious, dubious business expenses. (A karaoke machine for a laundromat?). Also from her father (the great James Hong, still kicking ass at 93!) who has always considered a failure because she’s not a son. She transfers this paternal disdain to her kind of dopey, affable husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, best known as Short Round from Temple of Doom) and her chubby lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, “The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel”).
Comics Matter host “Yaboi Zack” has talked about having “black woman PTSD syndrome” in comics where, if you see a black woman in a comic, you just cringe because you know exactly how that character is going to play out just through the process of eliminating all the ways it can’t play out in modern politically correct terms (and just heuristically seeing the way all such characters play out in current day media). And I have to admit, I cringed a bit—still knowing nothing about the movie—what have I gotten myself into?
Fortunately, Joy is not a cartoon cutout or a stand-in for some virtue. There is a message about acceptance, of course, but the message is a universal one. Hsu has to run the gamut from villain to victim, and she does well.
The movie kicks into gear pretty fast when Waymond—and I feel like I would be attacked for naming a Chinese character Waymond, or Wichard, or Bwian—suddenly switches into super-secret agent mode, and the plot begins to resemble that of Highlander (or more closely, Jet Li’s 2001 bomb The One) with Evelyn on the run from a multidimensional villain who believes—well, we start with “the villain wants to kill you” and evolve into something much more interesting.
This would have been fine as a film, really. Even at 60, Yeoh can fairly convincingly pull off some martial arts moves—though let’s give a shout out to her stunt double (Kiera O’Connor) as well as Hong’s (Alfred Hsing), Curtis’ (Elisabeth Carpenter) and Hsu’s (Gemma Nguyen)—and a quality action film is as welcome as it is rare.
But while there’s plenty of action, the multiverse concept is used to explore various ideas and relationships between the characters, with the notion that they are the same people (somehow) but in different circumstances, their antagonisms and affections might be reversed or altered in previously unthought of ways, and the things they think are so important in one reality don’t even occur to them in others.
This also would have been just fine, because a good philosophical/dramatic hook in a sci-fi/action film is even rarer than a quality action film. Mostly sci-fi is ham-handed or murky and almost inevitably ends so far up its own ass, it feels like being lectured by a dorky 14-year-old on the perils of climate change. But I hasten to point out again the Daniels are the guys who did Swiss Army Man.
That film, you may recall, also tackled the really big philosophical issues but the main plot mechanic was, literally, flatulence. Here, there are two comedic aspects that keep the film grounded and interesting. First, in order to fight interdimensional enemies, our protagonists have to make decisions that take them along unlikely paths toward universes where they have specific skills. Like, Waymond needs some martial art skill, but to get to that universe where he has that skill, he has to eat a tube of lip balm. Or he’ll have to give himself four separate paper cuts, or chew the gum off the bottom of the desk, et cetera. As the movie progresses, these decision paths require increasingly bizarre actions. And as random as these things are, there’s an aesthetic logic to it that pays off in the climactic sequence, which maps more or less to a fight scene but isn’t exactly.
The second is that the presence of the multiverse allows for very jokey things to occur, like an earth where everyone has hot dogs for fingers. But the twist there is that, when the Daniels introduce us to a concept like that, they go from the outlandish joke (a view of a primeval earth where sausage-fingered apes wipe out normal-fingered apes) to the very earnest representation of people living in a modern society where their fingers are basically useless, and how they evolved to deal with that.
You may notice a similarity to “Rick and Morty”, which has done similar gags for their “Interdimensional Cable” shows. But whereas that cartoon revels in nihilism, EEAO lets us view nihilism (it’s a bagel, literally) and then lets Evelyn find meaning the only way meaning can be found in an infinite universe of random particles. I found this to be a winning combination, just as I did Swiss Army Man‘s absurd path to something with meaning. The Daniels clearly want to talk about the Big Issues, but there is really the sense that they do want to converse and not lecture, which is the mark of great art.
Tonally, these shifts—from broadly comic to deadly serious to melodramatic—won’t work for everyone. It’s rare for an American movie to do it well, and it’s going to be jarring for some. But if you can enjoy those kinds of swings, it’s as well done here as I’ve ever seen.
Yeoh could still carry a movie, though she doesn’t have to here. In a way, her part is the most straightforward since as our central character, she’s the stable point from which we view the other universes. Her arc is at times subtle and is probably the most relatable, as she views the different outcomes different life paths would have brought her to, which (in a very Buddhist-feeling vein) is presented as a kind of “grass is greener” trap.
By contrast, Hsu’s role is broad: She’s bratty, moody, and by turns sympathetic and unsympathetic, very human and inhuman. It’s a tough role and she handles it well. Quan, who hasn’t worked much as an adult, is very effective in his low-key role. (Fun fact: Quan worked as a stunt choreographer on the aforementioned The One.) Intriguingly, the universe where Evelyn and Waymond are the most “successful” is the one where they don’t get married. Waymond and Joy are, besides being well-fleshed out character, opposite poles for Evelyn to play against, and the movie literalizes this in a way I didn’t pick up on even in a second viewing.
Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic. Initially, as the Javertian IRS agent bound and determined to make the Wangs pay their fair share, she is the movie’s primary antagonist. She segues seamlessly into a soulless minion of the Big Bad. And she factors in to the Wang’s multiversal existence.
The editing by Paul Rogers, who doesn’t have an extensive resume at this point, is Oscar worthy. The score by Son Lux (a New York based experimental group) is seamless across the tonal shifts. The sound editing, production and design, generally, is masterful.
I said last time that I would (probably) stop saying of old movies “You couldn’t make THIS today!” Here, at least is a movie you couldn’t have made at any time in the past. Granted, the limitations would have been largely technical—that is, I don’t think there’s much about the story that would have been objectionable over the past 40 years—but this is a highly artistic use of technology that is used to tell the story.
The Boy was out of town when I went to see this, but when he came back, we went to see it again, and he found it entertaining (though he was too jet lagged to take it all in). I concur, to the extent that a second viewing, knowing all that was coming, was enjoyable just to see so many clues that seemed ell-oh-ell-so-random! the first time and realize they pay off later on. There are few movies (apart from kiddie fare) that are this dense and also this carefully constructed, while seeming so utterly chaotic at times.