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‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

Photo courtesy of A24

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could also apply to the chaos and vexation that emanates from Everything Everywhere All at Once, the twisty science fiction black comedy from writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “Daniels”).

Photo courtesy of A24

The film opens with Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) struggling to get ready for an IRS audit while the family prepares for a Chinese New Year party. Her kind but mostly ineffectual husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), does all he can to calm her, but his eagerness to please is more of a hindrance. Adding to the familial strife, Waymond has just served Evelyn with divorce papers, which barely registers with his overwhelmed spouse.

Evelyn’s father, Gong Gong (James Hong), for whom Evelyn has been a life-long disappointment, has arrived from China to live with them. Her conflicted daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), tries to get the family to accept her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel). Finally, they are confronted with Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), the IRS inspector who embodies the worst elements of bureaucracy.

There is enough here to generate a domestic drama of complexity and interest. However, Everything Everywhere All at Once is an exploration of multi-universe theory. As Evelyn and Waymond ride the elevator to their IRS meeting, Waymond shifts to his Alpha/alternate self, explaining that the Alpha Evelyn is dead and only this version of Evelyn can save the multiverse. The entire structure of parallel existence is threatened by Jobu Tupaki, Alpha Waymond and Alpha Evelyn’s daughter. Jobu Tupaki experiences all universes simultaneously and can verse-jump and manipulate matter.

What fascinates is this Evelyn is the worst of all the Evelyns. Alpha Waymond tells her she has made every wrong choice and bad decision. But ironically, since she is the least gifted, she has the greatest capacity for change. Drawing on her many selves, she begins to own not just the powers of these different incarnations, but she becomes more connected to herself in “the present.”

The film presents a range of universes during the brisk (if slightly long) two hours and fifteen minutes. Evelyn’s many faces included a martial arts film star, an opera singer, a chef, and more. Some are glimpsed; others are revisited multiple times. From each, she gains not just skills but understanding.

Photo courtesy of A24

Along the way, the filmmakers present well-known sci-fi tropes, dramatic and emotional encounters, and a plethora of action sequences. But added to the mix are outrageous concepts, including a world where the inhabitants have hotdogs for fingers. The mispronunciation of Ratatouille results in a story focused on a cook and raccoon and the most nihilistic and heart-warming encounter between two rocks on a planet with no life. The extreme absurdity somehow plays winningly into the overall chaos.

Jobu Tupaki’s manifestation of oblivion is a black hole that she refers to as the Everything on a Bagel. The idea is that evil is when nothing matters.

The uniformly strong cast adeptly portrays various versions of themselves. And while they play the story straight, their comedic timing appropriately shines. Yeoh anchors the film in her pain and triumph, facing her foes and her inner demons, sliding from one manifestation to another.

Quan’s alternating between the self-actualized Alpha Waymond and the Thurber-esque husband is seamless. Hsu manages to embody the stressed, frustrated daughter and the manipulative destroyer and allows elements of both personalities to inform the other. Hong easily goes from the vaguely unaware grandfather to an almost militant leader. The always wonderful Curtis brings depth to the most extreme characters.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an artistic triumph, due in no small part to Larkin Seiple’s peripatetic, vivid cinematography. Jason Kisvarday’s production design, along with Shirley Kurata’s costume design, create a range of unique worlds, from the pedestrian reality to the wildly inventive.

The smallest decision creates a new branch in time; a missed chance affects the course of both the individual and the entire world. Deftly harnessing the concept of infinite parallel universes, Everything Everywhere All at Once’s heart suggests every choice is an opportunity. But more than that, as Alpha Waymond states: “We are useless alone.” The final message of connection rises above all else. Don’t miss the chance to take this very meta, often bizarre, but finally uplifting journey.

Rated R, Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in local theaters.