Film Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once
This past Sunday, I went to go see Everything Everywhere All at Once. I was initially a bit disappointed that I didn’t go on a Tuesday for discounted tickets, but after the first half hour, I became incredibly glad of my contribution to its box office. What a film! Michelle Yeoh stars as Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American laundromat owner under investigation for tax fraud. When she arrives at the IRS building however, a version of her husband arrives from another multiverse to inform her that she’s the one Evelyn from across the multiverses who can unite knowledge from across multiple versions of herself to defeat Jobu Tupaki, a great evil threatening all the multiverses. Spoilers ahead.
The first thing to strike me was the casting. I’ve seen the trailer a few times, so I knew it would star Michelle Yeoh, Malaysian Chinese superstar recently making her foray into the canon of Asian American film. Her husband Waymond Wang, is played by Ke Huy Quan, who is far from a household name, but whose pedigree struck me as soon as I heard his speech impediment clearly. He was a one of the first supporting actors of his generation over thirty-five years ago, as a child actor in The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. An early Asian American in Hollywood, he was given roles that had integrity and didn’t contribute to stereotypes. He then fell off the face of the earth, so I’m glad to see him and his accent. Joy is the daughter of the Wangs in the movie, played by Stephanie Hsu. I spent the better part of the movie wondering where I had seen her before: her face was so recognizable, yet I couldn’t attach any significance to it. I had began to wonder if she was a long lost childhood friend when it struck me: she’s Simu Liu and Awkwafina’s friend in the opening and closing of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which I’ve watched in the neighbourhood of fifteen times, fourteen on a tiny screen in a plane to support its viewership count. It’s not easy fighting for Asian American representation.
The movie moves quickly from immigrant drama to a science-fiction-martial-art spectacle after a Waymond from an alternate universe explains to Evelyn why she’s needed: in his universe, a technology exists to instantaneously learn the experiences from the same person in a different universe, and she would excel at this because she is the least successful of all the possible Evelyns, thus have been offered the greatest number of forks where things could have gone right for her. There are some hilarious fight scenes using an array of creative multiverse Evelyn careers and variety of props, including what can probably be best described as Chekov’s dildo. There are campy references to other movies, both classic and contemporary: truly everything everywhere all at once. Michelle Yeoh’s acting and martial arts chops come in handy here, pumping out fight scene to scene smooth, across a variety of different styles. The story is admittedly a bit wonky (What’s this everything bagel? What happens to the Evelyn in the universe she completely abandoned?), but it slowly dawns on the viewer that the science fiction is just a plot device.
The movie is really a roundabout way to address Evelyn’s life: she’s disappointed with it, and eyes daytime television soaps with longing eyes. -She’s living with her husband who she’s fallen out of love with, parenting her spunky daughter who doesn’t listen to her, and taking care of her elderly father, who she strongly wishes to impress; she has a tenuous relationship with all of them.
This all comes to a head when it’s revealed that the supervillain across universes, Jobu Tupaki, is a Joy from a parallel universe in which Evelyn pushed her too hard in multiverse training exercises and fractured her mind. She simultaneously experiences all realities at once, turning her into a nihilist who believes nothing matters. Ah yes, another immigrant parent generational trauma movie about a strict mother and a child who cracks. Fantastic. This movie however, is not a Pixar movie geared towards families or a Marvel movie geared towards the lowest common denominator and can address this issue in a much more nuanced fashion. Everything Everywhere All at Once is told from the perspective of the middle generation: her father treated her callously, and now she can’t find the words to communicate with her daughter otherwise. When the story is told in the traditional fashion, only the pain inflicted upon the youngest generation is discussed, and the blame is usually placed on their parent. Turning Red added the idea of intergenerational trauma into the mix but didn’t unpack the parents’ challenges.
The movie sheds light onto the life of Evelyn who has problems of her own to deal with: her shaky marriage, her ailing father, her shoddy taxes, and her busy work. Despite her efforts, Joy is just one of many parts of her life, demanding attention. As the greatest failure across the multiverse, there’s a lot that she wishes could have went differently. Evelyn also had no role models to learn from, as her father disowned her when she went to America. The generation gap between Evelyn and her daughter doesn’t make things easier, and neither does the language barrier. Though it’d be great if parents were perfect all the time, Evelyn is still her own person, with her own issues, work, and baggage. Besides, I’m sure that not all white parents are perfect either.
Though Everything Everywhere All at Once is an Asian American film, the story isn’t uniquely Asian American. Poor familial relations aren’t endemic to Asian immigrants, or immigrants of any sort. The same can be said about failing to achieve one’s dreams or feeling trapped in a monotonous life. Evelyn is a relatable character in middle age who is trying to figure out where it all went wrong, and the movie carries a similar message for anyone who feels the same way when looking back at their life. The movie paints an intricate picture of Evelyn, and though it leans on the Asian parenting issue, it doesn’t solely rely on that. Furthermore, the movie also does a great job of demonstrating the healing process, and at the end of the movie, she better understands her husband and daughter, apologizing for the errors of her ways. I’ve seen a few comments online about how this is the most fantastical element of the movie, all written by non-immigrants, showing the mainstream appeal of that plot point.
I ground out most of this piece over a consecutive seventeen-hour period from getting onto a train to the airport in the morning to arriving back at the train station at night, a few delayed flights later. I managed to get a whole playthrough of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and one of Minari as well, which really speaks to how long the flights were delayed. I’m glad that Minari is on the in-flight entertainment system now, but I will be even more so when Everything Everywhere All at Once finally hits that small screen. Until then, I might just consider going back to theatres to buy another ticket for my favourite movie of this year.