Perhaps the greatest performance of Michelle Yeoh’s career comes in Everything Everywhere All at Once, a multiverse dramedy epic in which she plays a completely ordinary woman. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) is a Chinese American immigrant with a flailing marriage, a failing laundromat and a daughter she doesn’t quite understand. Her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is sweet and affable, but the stress of caring for her elderly father (James Hong) and averting an impending IRS audit mean she doesn’t have time for him, and he’s filed for divorce just to get her attention. Her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), has a girlfriend and a tattoo, which Evelyn is trying very hard to understand. Her life is already full to the point of bursting when a version of Waymond from another universe appears and warns her that she’s in grave danger.
What follows is a breakneck explosion of genre tropes. Evelyn learns to universe-hop, shifting into alternate versions of herself from other timelines—a kung fu movie star, a hibachi chef, a maid at a sex dungeon, even a woman with hot dogs for fingers—to fight Jobu Tupaki, a malevolent being from another universe who was unintentionally created by an alternate version of Evelyn. The movie is remarkably fast-paced, verging on overstuffed, with high-flying, wuxia-influenced action scenes, some very goofy humor and quite a few scenes that pay homage to capital-M-Movies, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the films of Wong Kar-wai. Throwaway jokes splinter into new universes. Parody is layered on top of pastiche. But the film is built around a simple heart: the dignities and indignities of an ordinary life, and the generational tensions within an immigrant family.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is tacky, kitschy and at times a little juvenile—some of the jokes wear thin, like the recurring gag of sex toys being used in combat, which perhaps could have been deployed more sparingly. (Butt plugs: they’re funny the first time!) Some of the art direction—i.e., Jobu Tupaki’s Electric-Daisy-Carnival-from-Hell costume choices—fall on the grating side of maximalism. But the film never lingers too long on its misfires, and even the eye-rolling moments add up to a sense that someone (even if it’s only the directors, the duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as Daniels) is having a hell of a lot of fun.
Fun! How many corporate conglomerate multiverse-based action films have forgotten fun as an artistic imperative? I’m not sure “inventive” is the right word for this movie; it’s too winkingly devoted to its influences. But nothing about it feels dutiful. It’s a playful cinematic experience that wants to entertain.
The film’s emotional weight comes almost entirely from the performances, but that’s hardly a flaw when the cast is up to the task. It’s delightful to see Yeoh play to and against type at the same time—her established persona as the queen of martial arts films is both subverted and celebrated, and her turn as a stressed-out immigrant mother is genuinely affecting. The casting of Quan, a former child star of iconic ’80s films like The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, who retired from acting in 2002 in part because of the dearth of roles for Asian actors, is no less meta—and no less successful. He’s warm, whimsical, funny and romantic. Everything Everywhere All at Once won’t be all things to all people, but it’s one of the better justifications in recent years for a big night out at the movies.