**** (out of ****)
In one key moment late into Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Quan (Michelle Yeoh), the film’s harried and put-upon protagonist, wipes away a teardrop from the face of another character using the big toe of her foot. Well, to be clear, this is simply one version of a million different Evelyns, existing in multiple universes and currently being accessed by the version to whom we were introduced at the beginning. Still, at heart, she is the same Evelyn, and while the detail that she wipes a tear away with her big toe might be an odd one, the context makes it even stranger – that this Evelyn, like everyone in this particular universe, has evolved to grow hot-dog fingers.
A detail like this will be the ultimate test for prospective viewers: Can one accept even the possibility of a universe as absurd as one based around an evolutionary thread that has led to hot-dog fingers? The writing-and-directing pair of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, fashioned as “Daniels” onscreen, has previously proven – through their absurdist short films, a wildly popular music video, and 2016’s Swiss Army Man (not to mention Scheinert’s solo 2019 effort The Death of Dick Long) – to be quite adept at melding the absurd and the sincere, and this new film represents the pair at the peak of their conceptual and creative power. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding in this case is the fact that a hot-dog-fingered universe makes sense within this wild and consistently creative vision.
It becomes sensible on two levels, the less important of which is a logistical one. If humans have evolved to be hot-dog-fingered, then we have also evolved to be as dexterous with our feet – hence the wiping away of the teardrop – as we in this universe have become with our hands. The far more important level is the emotional implication of the scene at hand, which cannot be talked about for too long without the risk of spoiling the details (even though it would be impossible to spoil the effect of seeing it in context). The implication can be discussed, however, since the effectiveness of the scene is tied directly to it. If humans have evolved to be dexterous with their feet, that means the hot-dog-fingered universe must, in some ways, be a good and virtuous one, where humans have still found meaning and are still finding ways of caring for other people. If that is true of every universe, then, that means we will all probably be ok. Such a truth comes as a relief to the characters and to us.
The idea that every universe in which Evelyn has existed must be good or virtuous way is merely one of many ideas in Kwan and Scheinert’s screenplay, by the way. Indeed, it might simply be the equivalent of an afterthought in comparison to the motivation of the film’s central villain, who takes on a familiar face in all of those universes and has the weight of all of them on her shoulders. To the Evelyn we know, she appears as her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who has arrived back at this Evelyn’s laundromat with her long-term girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to introduce her to Evelyn’s elderly and old-fashioned father Gong Gong (James Hong). On top of needing to find a way to delay that revelation, the laundromat is being audited by the IRS for recent expenditures, and Evelyn and her pleasantly dull husband Waymond (a great Ke Huy Quan, tapping into the energy of the performances that defined his youth) are preparing for a Chinese New Year party.
That is the initial set-up of the story that unfolds for this Evelyn, whose priorities shift rapidly on the way to meet the IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis, broadly funny and disdainful before the role and character deepen and find humanity in unexpected ways). Waymond’s entire personality shifts from bumbling to purposeful, and he announces himself to be an alternate version of Evelyn’s husband from a universe that has learned how to interact and communicate with the others. Because this is the universe where Evelyn has been the least productive with her expectations of herself, this Waymond believes she can be helpful in tracking down the identity of “Jobu Tabaky,” the threat that appears as familiar to this Evelyn and several hundred others (In a reflection of how this wasteful Evelyn is both the weakest and most capable of her selves, in order to access one’s persona in this world, one must weaken oneself intentionally – by eating lip balm, for instance, or by shoving a workplace trophy in a certain orifice for the duration of combat).
This presents several options for Kwan and Scheinert. Most prominently, it gives them an excuse to stage and execute a series of dynamic and hilarious combat sequences, such as when the alternate Waymond infiltrates his bumbling form to wield a fanny pack with skill or when Evelyn accesses an alternate version’s skill with a street sign to fight off assailants with a riot shield. There are a lot more scenes like this, all of them pitched perfectly between absurd and exciting, but it should be noted that the directors aren’t using them as any sort of defense mechanism against hollowness elsewhere. The film’s bombast is entirely of a piece with what the film ultimately becomes, as the villain leads Evelyn through a vast multiverse of possibility toward the emptiness that fills the core of her own view of the universe.
Yeoh’s performance is tremendous, exploring as many avenues of emotional complexity as Evelyn explores literal avenues of lives lived or in progress, and even gets a chance to be playful, such as in a few scenes highlight the physical skillfulness for which she became popular overseas and Stateside. It’s truly great work from one of the best actresses in the world. Hsu, meanwhile, essays a character just as complex in her development before we even get to the part where she plays the villain of the story – which, of course, is only a reflection of what is truly going on within the character’s head, a detail tied to a few of the surprises that shouldn’t be mentioned here.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film rife with as many ideas of the philosophical and existential variety (the final battle is, beneath the literal nature of it, between the perceptions of the universe as a meaningless construct and as a place where people live and thrive and think and feel, all of which should give it meaning) as of the visual and the conceptual (the film’s best visual effect reminds of the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey in more ways than one and fully pays off, too). It is a film as bursting with creativity as it is achingly, intimately human, and oh, man – we didn’t even get to the part with a talkative raccoon puppeteering a chef from under his toque blanche.
Review by Joel Copling