Movie Review: Everything Everywhere All At Once

For the IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility) Committee blog this month, I am going to talk about a new film that touches on several aspects of marginalized groups. I am a big fan of cinema. I am about 180 films into the Internet Movie Data Base’s Top 250 films as ranked by users. I can appreciate the highest of highbrow Oscar bait, and the most ridiculous spectacle you can imagine. I like stories, which is part of what compelled me to become a librarian. I want to talk about the indie sensation Everything Everywhere All At Once, which manages to pull off some rare duality when it comes to its sensibilities. That duality embraces the best of both highbrow and lowbrow, and the film takes familiar, well tread tropes and inverts them into something familiar yet wholly original.

Minor spoilers ahead.   

Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) takes an absurdist approach at filmmaking. On its surface, EEAAO is a story about a fairly unlikable woman (the always stellar Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wong) trying to do her taxes to save her families rundown laundromat. Doesn’t exactly sound like a groundbreaking film that manages to grab ahold of nearly every genre and every human emotion and wring them for everything they’re worth, yet EEAAO not only earns its title, it delivers on it.

One of the central themes in EEAAO is how Yeoh cannot connect with her daughter, Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu, who has a girlfriend she would like to introduce to Evelyn’s cranky, traditional father, Gong Gong, played by the great James Hong. Also ignored is her husband, Waymond, who has filed for divorce but hasn’t been able to nail Evelyn down to tell her yet. Waymond is charmingly played to perfection by Ke Huy Quan. You might recognize Quan as the actor who played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and wonky gadget inventor Data from The Goonies. Quan retired from acting 20 years ago due to the lack of roles available to Asian actors, and after watching his performance here it is clear we have all been robbed by his absence. Rounding out the cast is Jamie Lee Curtis as the scenery chewing, beleaguered, and bureaucratic IRS agent tasked with sorting out the Wong’s tax trouble, Deirdre. When a Waymond from another universe jumps into her husbands body during the IRS meeting, Evelyn must literally fight her way out of the building while trying to repair her broken family, and save the multiverse from the nihilistic Jobu Tupaki.  

One of the funniest subversions of expectations is the well-worn The One trope, which has been done to death from Dune to The Matrix to the actual movie called The One, for which Ke Huy Quan did behind the scenes work. Evelyn is NOT The One, Alternate Waymond explains. The reason she has been chosen is that she is the worst Evelyn in the entire multiverse. She is so bad at everything that she can literally do anything, and it will be an improvement. I found this hilariously affirming, and it also gives her an underdog scrappiness absent in most of the films that use this device. It takes a lot of writing, directing, and acting talent to make Michelle Yeoh appear incompetent after her turns in Yes Madam, Police Story 3: Supercop (where she actually jumped a motorcycle onto a moving train, one upping co-star Jackie Chan in the do your own stunts department), and Tomorrow Never Dies, but this film is up to the challenge.

What follows may give some people tonal whiplash after spending 40 minutes getting to know this deeply flawed family and the laundromat customers that occasionally display casual and oblivious racism. Trying to escape the IRS office, Alternate Waymond uses a fanny pack to lay waste to a group of security guards in an excellently choreographed scene that recall both Short Round’s moves and Data’s ingenuity. The action itself calls to mind the unrestrained glee of Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. To access alternative selves and their talents in the multiverse, the characters must do something weird and out of place to establish a connection. The possibilities this plot device opens are taken to the absolute limit – trust me, you might not even believe what you are seeing when a security guard is desperately trying to get ahold of one of Deidre’s IRS trophies and what follows. Suffice it to say, this will not cater to all sensibilities.

Sprinkled between the madness are heart wrenching and realistic conversations between characters facing relatable, modern problems. Joy wants acknowledgement of her sexuality and true self, Waymond wants the attention of his wife, and Evelyn is increasingly distracted by her alternative selves that all seem to have more going for them than a failing business and family. While trying to thread through all of this, Evelyn must defeat Jobu Tupaki, and her bagel. It’s a seriously dangerous bagel.     

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that, if you embrace it and fully commit to the ride, is exhausting in the best way. I felt like I had an out of body experience after watching it and cannot think of another film that has delivered a human story with such scope of ambition. I read an article where a critic said they had to go and see it a second time just to be sure it had not been a hallucination, and I can relate. It is sitting on Rotten Tomatoes with a current 95% Certified Fresh score with 330 critic reviews. It is awkwardly and hilariously crude at times, but it manages to make the central characters believable – even when they are in a universe where, for some reason, humans evolved with hotdog like fingers and use their feet as hands. Check this little film out. Then see it again just to make sure you saw what you saw.   

Eric Christensen

IDEA Committee Member and Librarian of Archive Processing, Special Collections and Archives