Nowadays, before a movie is even released, there is typically a long marketing campaign telling as many people as possible about the plot of the given film. Because of that, when a film is released without much public knowledge of its content but with an army of hype behind it, it is a treat to be savored. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is that movie. After its premier at the South by Southwest film festival in early March was met by universal acclaim, the film quickly made its way to IMAX screens across the country with a looming air of mystery as to what it was actually about. The answer to that question is not just shocking, it’s one the greatest surprises I’ve seen committed to the silver screen.
The film opens in a laundromat with married owners Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) preparing their bank statements and receipts for a meeting with the IRS. At the same time, Evelyn’s estranged father Gong Gong (James Hong) has just arrived for their Lunar New Year celebration and Evelyn’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has brought her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to try and gain her parents’ approval. It is after this setup that anyone recapping the film with any sense of ethics should stop explaining the plot and let the viewer witness the rest of this deliciously absurd adventure with their own unclouded eyes. The film is too good and too unique for its contents to be spoiled.
But what can be explained is why all of the film’s absurdity works so effortlessly. Without giving any specific circumstances away, the movie is a sci-fi action comedy dealing heavily with the idea of the multiverse, taking place almost exclusively in an IRS building.
This description is a long ways away from the initial setup of a laundromat-centered family drama, and while the transition from one thematic beat to another is initially brash, it all gets smoothed out as you make sense of what this movie is — absurd in both senses of the word. Through its irreverent Bruce Lee-inspired action scenes using everything from fanny packs to sex toys as weapons, the film is absurd in the over-the-top wackiness sense. But the film also heavily grapples with philosophical absurdity. The use of the multiverse poses interesting questions about individual expression, free will and purpose, leading to a Camusian exploration of how to embrace this absurdity.
The balancing act between these two absurdities is really what makes the film so enjoyable. The deep philosophical questions that linger beneath the surface are what ground the incessant zaniness from becoming something annoying or repetitive. This zaniness is what brings intrigue to the philosophy and doesn’t make the film a painful trudge through existential mire. The switching between these tones is never unwarranted — in fact, it mostly serves to deepen the emotional weight of the film. The editing is so crisp and well-executed that at one moment you will be falling out of your seat laughing at a butt plug-related fistfight and at the next crying over two rocks overlooking a gorge. To someone who has never seen the movie, this statement sounds completely out of the realm of possibility, but once watching it, it all makes perfect sense.
At the center of this entire production is Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang. A financially irresponsible local business owner in her late 50s might not seem like the optimal character to be an action hero, but her performance will make you feel stupid for ever having that thought. In a story that is almost entirely detached from reality, her subtlety and complete devotion to the role is the glue that holds the entire fabric of this film together. Pairing Yeoh’s performance with the slick and imaginative direction of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively referred to as Daniels), the film takes the mundane and turns it into the thrilling, then turns the thrilling into something of actual substance to reflect upon.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the film we need — not the one we deserve, but by some stroke of good fortune we received anyway. In a modern cinematic landscape where the idea of a multiverse is usually less an interesting exploration of a theoretical concept and more often a vessel to make creatively bankrupt cash grabs, this film shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. When creative people make things outside of the traditional studio landscape, great things come about. It is obvious while watching the film that everyone was having the time of their lives making it and every member of the cast and crew, from the lead actors to the prop masters, were putting their all into the production. Every frame is oozing with pure love from everyone involved — a love that radiates directly into the audience and never leaves.