REVIEW: 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'

Can a movie be too original? Maybe.

April 29, 2022

One day, many years ago, two friends of mine had a conversation about the just-opened Holocaust Museum in Washington. "Oh my God, Jen," said one, "have you been?" Jen replied that she hadn't, but was desperate to go; how was it? My other friend paused, and then said, deliberately and excitedly: "It was Out. Of. Control."

Despite the constant warnings that we're all "triggering" each other with traumatic experiences and stories and concepts, people seem to crave nerve-jangling and emotion-shattering stimulus wherever we can find them. They bungee-jump, and ride rollercoasters, and yes, go to Holocaust museums—all so that they can experience the sensation of being "out of control" in a controlled setting. After 120 years of moviemaking and moviegoing, it's almost impossible for films to create such a feeling—to take you to an out-of-control place.

There is a picture now in release that does. It's called Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it's the first legitimate box-office sleeper since the onset of the pandemic two years ago. By the end of this weekend this hipster indie, partially in Chinese, will have made more than $30 million, almost all of it due to enthusiastic word of mouth, and it's on its way to making many times that both here and abroad. It doesn't have any big stars, and its two directors—Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are credited as "Daniels"—are known only to cineastes.

What Everything Everywhere All at Once does have is a bankable plot in a bankable genre: It's an action-adventure sci-fi fantasy about multiple universes. (It gets some Marvel-cred because it was produced by the Russo brothers, who directed the last two Avengers movies.) But more important than that, from its first moment to its last, you genuinely have no idea where this thing is going, and it just gets wilder and wilder and wilder—and less and less coherent in terms of plot. The kinds of reactions it's eliciting echo that long-ago conversation between my two friends.

I thought it a crashing bore, because I'm one of those tiresome people who don't really want to feel "out of control." And I've always had an allergy to self-consciously and deliberately "original" fare, movies and novels with crazy plot points and incidents and details that seem to have been chosen in large measure because no one has ever chosen them before. For example, the movie the two Daniels made before this, Swiss Army Man, was about a man on a desert island who escapes by riding on the back of a corpse that powers their way across the oceans by farting. That was undoubtedly enormously original. But so what?

The story in Everything Everywhere All at Once involves Evelyn, a disappointed small business owner, played by the legendary Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh. She hates her life. She hates the laundromat she and her husband (Ke Huy Quan) run. She hates the fact that the IRS is about to seize it from her. She shows no kindness or warmth to him or to their daughter. Her only emotion is anxiety, because her disapproving father has arrived for a visit from China and she is terrified of his negativity.

At their meeting with a harsh IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is suddenly made aware of the existence of billions of universes, all of which have come under threat of extinction from an all-powerful and nihilistic force named Jobu Tupaki—who happens to be her own depressed daughter in our world. Evelyn is tasked with saving all of existence in the time it will take for her to get the right receipts back to the IRS to prevent the seizure of her laundromat.

Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan both give vivid and beautiful performances in this madcap romp, which builds to a bizarrely sentimental and emotionally manipulative conclusion. I think everything we've just watched is Evelyn's fantasia—a wild escape fantasy that helps guide her toward accepting her responsibility for her own misery, her obligation to her unhappy husband, and the difficult amends she must make to her daughter to save the girl from her own self-destructive impulses. But by that point I felt like I had been battered into submission rather than brought to enlightenment.

Maybe I'm just too old for it. The funny part is I'm the same age as Michelle Yeoh.

Published under: Movie Reviews