Synopsis: Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is having a bad day. Her laundromat is being audited by a Gorgon of an IRS agent named Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). Her doormat of a husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) has served her divorce papers. Her demanding father Gong Gong (James Hong) sees her as a disappointment. And oh yes, it turns out that Evelyn is the key to winning a multiversal war against an all-powerful entity named Jobu Tupaki, who, as luck would have it, is a parallel incarnation of her increasingly-distant daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Y’know, just everyday problems.
1. On occasion, I see something so good that I immediately declare it the best movie of the year, regardless of when it is released. Sometimes I’m wrong on hindsight, but it’s really less about being right and more about the glorious feeling of being so blown away by a film that I just cannot imagine anything coming out in the same calendar year that can match it. It’s more of an emotional response than a logical one, an attempt to capture that sublime awe when one encounters a great work of art. So, with all that said …
Everything Everywhere All At Once is the best movie of the decade.
2. Most movies have titles that function as description. Think Fight Club or 50 First Dates or Gangs of New York. Some movies have title that function as theme. Think The Tree of Life or Amour or Happiness. And a few select movies have titles that function as a promise. Think There Will Be Blood or Apocalypse Now or Aguirre: The Wrath of God. To that list arrives Everything Everywhere All At Once (henceforth shortened to Everything), which makes good on its title’s guarantee and then some. The latest film by directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) goes balls to the wall so hard that there is barely any wall left standing by the end of its runtime. Barely half a year after the biggest juggernaut in cinema used the concept of the multiverse just to say ‘hey look, it’s those Spider-Men you like!’ comes a film that takes the same concept and suffuses it with boundless amounts of creativity, pathos, humour, and profundity, and does so in such a clever and confident way that the MCU might as well shred the rest of Phase 4, because there is zero chance that they will match this, even with all the money in the world. (1) Yet perhaps the most astounding thing of a thoroughly astounding film is how Everything is anchored on a deep and authentic emotional core which makes it feel grounded and real – and I’m saying this about a movie that features a scene where Michelle Yeoh fights two guys who are trying to shove a buttplug-shaped trophy up their asses! The only comparison I can make with Everything is the highest honour of all. This felt like prime-Simpsons, sharing the same anarchic sensibility, scalpel-sharp wit, mix of so-dumb-it’s-smart and so-smart-it’s-dumb humour, and heartwrenching poignancy that juuuuuuuuuuuuuust about tips into sentimentality, except it’s so well-earned that you’d need a heart of stone to resist it.
3. Honestly, I have no idea where to start. I write these things pretty methodically – one paragraph on performance, one on narrative/writing structure, one on camera work, one on production design, etcetera, but in this case, everything is tied together so tightly that it’s impossible to isolate one element from another. So I’ll go with what is easiest, and just say that this film could only work with one actor at its centre, and thank god she said yes. Michelle Yeoh is superb, and this performance is the crown jewel of her decades of movie stardom. Who else could have done this? Who else could both play the sad, worn-out immigrant, shoulders sagging with the weight of unfulfilled expectations, and the multiverse conqueror, fighting with such grace and fluidity? Every new role the Daniels pitch at her – opera singer, sign-spinner, sausage-fingered lesbian, movie star (ok that last one is not much of a stretch) – is knocked right out of the park with elan, and the most amazing thing is how much she buys in. Nothing is too stupid or goofy for her, not riding Ratatouille-style on a chef’s head or feeding her father his own snot. For an actor best known for being both badass and regal, her commitment to this film’s slapstick insanity is unquestionable, and she sells them just as convincingly as the scenes of emotional catharsis. As great as Yeoh is, she is matched at every step by Ke Huy Quan, who is nothing short of a revelation. After a long acting hiatus, the former child star (best known for poorly-received comic relief roles in 80s Spielbergian blockbusters) has returned with a vengeance. Like Yeoh, Quan has to play multiple versions of Waymond, and he is so great at it that just the way he holds his facial posture immediately clues the viewer in as to which Waymond he is. Furthermore, Waymond serves as the film’s beating heart and its moral compass, with a climactic monologue that is deeply moving in its simplicity. The supporting performances are uniformly excellent, with veterans James Hong and Jamie Lee Curtis clearly having the time of their lives enjoying the craziness they get to do, and if there’s any justice, this should be a breakout role for Stephanie Hsu, who really makes you feel exactly how a mix of disappointment and enlightenment can curdle into nihilism.
4. But the success of these actors is only made possible by the insane, ingenious minds who thought up this whole shebang. I was quite taken by Daniels’ last movie Swiss Army Man (aka the one where Daniel Radcliffe plays a talking corpse who helps Paul Dano escape a deserted island via the power of magic erections and farts), but that film had its fair share of moments where it felt like the gap between its ambition and execution was too great. Not so for Everything, which is vice-tight in every aspect, starting with its writing. Not a moment is wasted (2) with what first appears like one-off jokes becoming running gags that pick up comedic momentum with each recurrence. I won’t spoil them because you deserve to experience them first-hand, but let’s just say that you will never see a certain Pixar film the same way again. If this film was simply a joke delivery machine, it would already be superb, but what really pushes this film into the stratosphere is how its humour is really a Trojan horse to deliver (i) an emotionally rich story of an immigrant family’s myriad struggles and (ii) some very heavy existential concepts about finding meaning in an inherently meaningless world. I mentioned The Simpsons earlier, but two further touchpoints for this movie seem to be the sitcom Community (3) and the work of cartoonist Don Hertzfeldt, both of which specialise in delivering contemplation of the meaning of life via smart-dumb jokes. This is a film that asks one of the biggest questions of all – what is the point of existing in a fundamentally meaningless world? – and answers it in a way that might seem trite to some, but hit every button in my intellectual and emotional being.
5. It also happens to be one of the best narratives about being Chinese. I have made my many, many, many negative feelings about Michelle Yeoh’s last Hollywood movie about this subject very clear, and suffice it to say, this one handles the topic with a lot more intelligence and subtlety than ‘herp dee derp Chinese people got money now’. If anything, Everything seems to deliberately dissect many of the pernicious tropes surrounding Chinese-American narratives. (4) The character of the desexualised, ‘beta’ Asian male is radically reinterpreted through Waymond, transforming from the butt of the joke to a rare cinematic portrayal of positive masculinity, with that symbol of browbeaten Asian dad, the fanny pack, turning into a kung-fu weapon in one of the movie’s (many, many, many) great fight scenes. The insidious concept of the model minority is also shredded to bits, as the strain of appearing perfect and fitting into external expectations is one of the key tensions that drives many of the characters. And of course, the overbearing Asian mother, so often used as a cheap and easy antagonist, (5) is instead the protagonist of the film, with her traumas taken seriously while still not letting her off the hook for how she continues to impart the same pain to the rest of her family. Oh, and how wonderful and refreshing it is to hear unabashedly ‘Asian’ accents from Yeoh, Quan and Hong that simply exist and are not played for cheap laughs. (6) Like Pixar’s excellent Turning Red (review coming soon!), Everything takes the stereotypes about Chinese-Americans and inverts them to criticise the easy, misguided portrayals of the past and to interrogate how our simplistic viewpoints of people never quite match up to the messy reality within. This sense of overwhelming empathy applies even to the nominal antagonist of the film, who is granted so much humanity and understanding by the end that it calls into question Evelyn’s (and the audience’s) dismissal of her as simply a fat, old, anal-retentive IRS agent. That, to me, is the sign of greatness, when the theme of a movie is not simply stated, but lived through by anyone experiencing it.
6. I have not even talked about the craft of the film, and again, I’m not even sure where to start, so I’ll just begin from the beginning. The camerawork in the first scene is fantastic, whip-panning and tracking across the narrow confines of the laundromat, working in tandem with the screenplay and the actors to really impress upon the audience what it’s like to be in Evelyn’s frazzled, hectic life. On its own, this style would be a wonderful example of the type of craftsmanship in this movie, but then the verse-jumping begins, and the Daniels just go absolutely insane. Aspect ratios shift from universe to universe with a widescreen take in the action-packed Alphaverse, a standard 1.85:1 ratio for the ‘normal’ universe, and a boxy academy ratio for the flashbacks set in China. Beyond that, the Daniels fire up their arsenal of cinematic references to match whatever universe they are in, deploying Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle’s signature slow-motion blurry backgrounds for a scene between alternate Evelyn and alternate Waymond that alludes to the hazy romanticism of In The Mood for Love, using filters to replicate the faded and grainy Shaw-brothers style kung-fu movies, and a 2001: A Space Odyssey homage so sidesplittingly hilarious that it renders any further attempt to parody that classic film pointless. The various fight scenes are also energetically and entertainingly staged, avoiding the bloodless and weightless CGI-filled blockbuster ‘action’ to instead deliver spectacular sequences of visceral combat shot with long takes and filled with practical effects. The creativity of the fight choreography is just off the charts, with weapons running the gamut from improvised (the aforementioned fanny pack, paper cutters, riot shields) to the sublimely ridiculous (dildos, BDSM equipment, sausage fingers that squirt ketchup and mustard), and the fluid, realistic stunts that can only be achieved by casting an action cinema icon in the lead role.
7) I could keep going on and on. I have not even talked about how the Daniels wring more emotion out of a single shot of two rocks rolling downhill than any middlebrow historical period drama of the last decade. Or how the spectacular editing constantly gives the film both a propulsive momentum and a consistent sense of physical and dimensional geography. Or the magnificent score by the band Son Lux that is equal parts affecting and dissonant. Or the practical effects created by a five-person team that just constantly blew me away by how clever and innovative they were. Or the costuming, with Jobu Tupaki’s increasingly baroque outfits a particular highlight. If it has not been made clear by now, every single iota of this film is a minor goddamn miracle, suffused with so much creativity, ingenuity and feeling that it almost feels impossible that it exists. And yet it does, and it was made by real, actual human beings! Films like this remind me exactly why I love the art form (and all those other art forms, of course), because at its best, cinema can deliver an experience that is truly transcendent, with so many different parties collaborating to create something that burrows itself within you which changes you for the better, even if imperceptibly. Everything Everywhere All At Once is that work of cinema. It’s both a sublime work of art and a riotously enjoyable entertainment product. It tells a story at once both broadly universal and deeply specific. It is a seemingly unconstrained burst of creativity that is secretly one of the most methodically structured narratives I have ever seen. It’s two hours and twenty minutes of some of the most original, and mind-bending ideas in cinema, anchored in a story of emotional depth. It’s a film that looks right into the fundamental emptiness at the heart of the human condition and reacts not with despair, but with joy and empathy and love and a desire to make the next day a better one. It’s a fucking masterpiece and the best movie I have seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. You need to watch it now.
Verdict: Are you kidding me right now? Highest recommendation. Best movie of the decade as things stand, and I suspect that opinion will stay the same in 2029.
- Spider-Verse, on the other hand, stands a chance.
- Fine, one negative note. The climax goes on for a bit too long. Slightly tighter editing or quicker dialogue might have helped. In the grand scheme of things, this is an insignificant point.
- Of note, the Russo brothers are producers of this movie. While they are best known for their work in the MCU, they were also heavily involved in Community throughout its too-short lifespan. Also, while Rick and Morty appears to be a far more obvious comparison, its foundational nihilism is one that is roundly rejected by Everything, and Community‘s sense of, well, community is a far better thematic match for Everything‘s central thesis that connection is, well, everything.
- Some perpetrated by many Chinese-Americans themselves, and I will stop myself here before this turns into a twenty-thousand word rant that heavily features the term ‘self-Orientalism’.
- Nope, can’t help myself. I’m going to say it. Fuck The Joy Luck Club and The Woman Warrior and yes, of course, Crazy Rich Asians for their services to toxic cultural narratives. I’m so glad that these texts exist so that we can all be much more aware about how necessary it is for the lone, freed, ‘liberal’ Chinese-American protagonist to run as far away as she can from the evil backwards melange of stereotypes they present to wypipo as ‘the East’. Bonus points if said protagonist actually lectures our poor benighted representation of ‘traditional Chinese culture’ into realising just how superior her new ‘American’ values truly are.
- Last one, I swear. Fuck you, CRA.