Everything Everywhere All at Once begins in an alternate reality—on the other side of a mirror, through which Evelyn sits watching TV with her family. Michelle Yeoh plays a busy mum, wife and daughter who’s attention is in constant demand. She bustles about the laundromat which she runs with her husband Waymond and daughter Joy. Upstairs her ailing father sits brooding while she makes him food—she has to finish the noodles before he starts shouting about lunch.
Evelyn is a woman with too much to do, too much to even sit down and have a conversation with her husband. Waymond played by Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) spends the first forty minutes of this film trying to get his wife to look at a document. ‘Wait!’ he pleads as she pushes past him again. ‘Wait, wait? No time to wait!’ He’s trying to get her to look at the divorce papers. She doesn’t even know he’s asking her for a divorce. Of course she doesn’t—who has time to talk about divorce? There’s the party to prep for and the second business loan to take out.
Their daughter isn’t helping—she’s too busy worrying about what her grandfather will say about her girlfriend. Life is too busy, too fraught to pay attention to each other’s emotions. The film’s early scenes are funny and fast-paced, depicting the boring but frantic lives of an immigrant Chinese family in America.
Evelyn and Waymond then wheel the father over to the IRS to discuss a new business venture with a tax adviser and suddenly Evelyn’s life takes an unexpected turn. She is visited in the lift by another version of her husband. ‘It’s not me,’ he says: he has a very important mission for her. Somewhere, in another universe, an agent of chaos is about to destroy the world. I think that’s what’s happening—from this point it becomes very complicated.
Evelyn undergoes ‘alternate life path scanning’ in the IRS building while trying to have an important meeting about their suitability to open another business. The tax adviser is not impressed. ‘Mrs Wang? Are you paying attention? Nothing could possibly be more important than this conversation.’ ‘I am paying attention,’ Evelyn reassures the tax lady (Jamie Lee Curtis, totally bonkers), and herself.
Only she’s not—how can she when she’s suddenly being sucked into an alternate universe in which the tax lady is attacking her? The alternate realities sometimes get mixed up and Evelyn ends up punching the normal tax lady, which doesn’t go down well. The next seventy minutes are utterly insane and sometimes enjoyable.
At one point Evelyn enters a universe in which everyone has hotdogs for fingers. I was baffled by this new path, but if there are infinite numbers of different universes, why wouldn’t there be a world where we all had hotdogs for fingers? That’s the spirit of the film, in essence. Evelyn’s crazy adventures show her different sides to her husband, her daughter and herself, and she begins to realise that mid-life depression and complacency have taken hold, and she needs to reclaim her life. In one of the alternate universes her husband is confident, assured and a little bit hard to get. It reminds her of the man she fell in love with.
The film is really about an immigrant couple trying to sustain their floundering business and marriage and raise their daughter in a different culture. The husband is more like Evelyn’s kid, tip-toeing up to her asking for her attention and cowering when she shoos him away. Meanwhile the agent of chaos threatening to destroy the world turns out to be her daughter. In the real world Joy is an angsty teen—in the alternate world she’s dangerous and powerful enough to destroy the universe by sucking it up through the whirling void of an everything-bagel: ‘I put everything on a bagel and it collapsed in on itself.
When you put everything on a bagel you realise nothing matters…all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away.’ If Evelyn can stop the agent of chaos from destroying the world, surely she can comfort her teenage daughter. But somewhere along the way Evelyn lost the thread of her own life—what does it all mean? What’s it all for?
Her husband reminds her of the value of steady, patient love. ‘Even in a stupid universe where we get hotdogs for fingers’, she realises, there is still love. And that’s what it’s all for. She frees herself from the shackles of her father’s expectations. He’s disappointed with the path she chose, the eccentric, poor husband she married. He didn’t speak to her for years as a result.
‘I can no longer do to my daughter what you did to me,’ she tells her father. ‘How could you let me go so easily?’ The father (James Hong) is a strong emotional presence but without much to do on screen. Much of the weight and the humour of the film is lost in interminable psychedelic escapades, in which Evelyn battles countless unknown enemies.
Towards the end she begins to use her fighting powers to help people and I guess that’s her character arch, but the film lost me during the butt plug fight sequence. The best parts are the quiet moments in which Ke Huy Quan watches an elderly couple kiss, and you know exactly what he’s feeling as he watches them. He won an Oscar for the performance, as did Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis. At its heart Everything Everywhere All at Once is a quietly affecting family drama about the choices we make in our youth and their unintended consequences. But the film itself becomes too much of everything, everywhere all at once.