blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

Quite appropriately, Everything Everywhere All at Once is all the things. At once. And more. The film’s a relatively simply told multiverse comic book action-comedy-family-drama-romance-horror story with time to do a traditional hero arc, then deconstruct it. The film gives stars Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and Ke Huy Quan constantly changing roles as we meet various versions of them from across the multiverse. Everything takes it one step further, turning the momentum of meeting alternate versions of the same character (so alternate versions of the same performer but not the same performance) into a main story arc.

Everything employs an interesting structure—three identified parts, with the first part ending on a cliffhanger and the third part more an epilogue. But there’s a three-act structure to the parts. So the stakes are entirely different in the second part than the first, even though the overall threat is the same—the multiverse is in danger, and only Yeoh can save it.

Directors Kwan and Scheinert toggle through various styles in the film. Too many to count—while there’s an infinite number of Yeohs out there, the film only really asks the viewer to remember ten. Maybe not even ten. There’s an action movie Yeoh, there’s a family drama Yeoh, there’s an absurd romantic drama Yeoh, there’s a Wong Kar-wai movie Yeoh, and then a handful of sight gag universe Yeohs. In all these other universes, Yeoh’s somehow spectacular. There’s one thing she does better than anyone else.

But Yeoh Prime’s one thing she’s better than anyone else at is being a failure. No matter what she tries, it eventually doesn’t work out. The film’s present action in the Prime universe is about Yeoh and husband Quan in trouble with the IRS—specifically relentless auditor Jamie Lee Curtis—at the same time, Yeoh has to take in her father, James Hong. Yeoh and Quan left China as rebellious young adults and came to the United States and opened a laundromat, where they never made enough money, but also never too little they gave up on it. Also, it’s Chinese New Year. Also, Hsu, as their daughter, wants to introduce girlfriend Tallie Medel to grandpa Hong as her girlfriend, and Yeoh’s not sure it’s the right time for Hsu to be herself.

As Yeoh starts universe-hopping, she’s going to see how her life changed and how it didn’t, which exposes her to insights. What’s so wild—I mean, it’s already wild, it’s a Hong Kong cinema homage kung fu family drama absurdist comedy—but what’s also so wild is how the second part is then all about Yeoh taking agency and learning from those other lives. Everything is about the story’s protagonist taking an active role in how their story progresses.

The first part has Yeoh and Quan together most of the time, with Yeoh’s relationship with Hsu providing a lot of narrative turmoil but not affecting the action. The second part flips that situation, partnering Yeoh and Hsu most of the time, but Quan’s consequentially bound to the narrative. It’s delicate and detailed, with the directors changing aspect ratios and cameras (or at least good filters) between the various different movies Yeoh finds herself in. Because it’s always a movie, and she’s just watching her life go by.

Even as Yeoh Prime begins to realize her potential, one of her splinter arcs involves the “good guys” trying to keep her in a passive role. Or at least subordinate, even as she’s discovering she can break free from all constraint. Yeoh’s got a beautiful story arc, which she performs flawlessly. After all the big comparisons between universes in the first half, the film gets more subtle in the second. By the finale, it’s practically gentle, with almost indistinguishable–but still very distinct—differences between the universes.

The film’s a technical marvel throughout, with cinematographer Larkin Seiple and editor Paul Rogers doing superlative work (in addition to outstanding work from costumes designer Shirley Kurata and production designer Jason Kisvarday). But there’s something even more special about the finale: Seiple and Rogers are no longer trying to wow with the audiovisual but lower the intensity so the performances take center stage. It’s subtle, breathtaking work.

Phenomenal performances from Yeoh, Hsu, and Quan. Curtis is great too—ditto Hong—but they’re orbiting the stars, not doing these inconceivably gigantic character arcs. Quan gets a little less to do than Yeoh and Hsu, but his presence itself is enough to inform some of Yeoh’s arc. The scenes where she and Hsu really get to act opposite each other are mesmerizing.

Everything about Everything comes together—the shifts in pacing, the sometimes over-the-top sight gags or references, not to mention Quan. While he doesn’t get the central character relationship, he does get the peripheral one, but he also gets to do a variety of other versions of the character. There’s his sexy WKW guy, there’s the action hero, there’s the concerned dad. Yeoh and Hsu give these momentous performances, but those arcs are part of the plot. Quan gets to do these different characters, and the oomph is in his performance, not the narrative momentum.

That said, it’s obviously Yeoh’s showcase.

The film’s a significant accomplishment for cast and crew. Everything’s an exhilarating, emotionally enthralling experience.

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