In most films and TV shows dealing with an infinite multiverse, the sheer amount of possibility within that multiverse is often used as proof that our lives, and the actions we take in them, don’t matter. Perhaps the best, and smartest, thing that Everything Everywhere All At Once does is flip this script. Though its dimension-hopping is its central selling point, the conclusion it arrives at is the only possible humane one: in the face of real life, how can something as incomprehensible as the infinite multiverse matter? Through all its silliness, the new film from the Daniels succeeds because it places the human above the abstract, even if the road to that conclusion is a deeply uneven ride.
At the centre of this multiverse is first generation Chinese-American Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), the always chaotically busy owner of a California laundromat who already has enough on her plate before any interdimensional travel even kicks off. There’s an IRS audit, an upcoming Chinese New Year party, the arrival of Evelyn’s aging father Gong Gong (James Hong), and her increasingly frustrated and distanced husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
In the midst of her meeting with auditor Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis, having a lot of fun), though, Evelyn suddenly finds herself recruited into a multiversal war by an action-hero version of Waymond. An entity of pure chaos known as Jobu Tupaki is destroying realities one by one, and this version of Evelyn seems to be the only person in the multiverse with the capacity to stop this rampage. Evelyn, it transpires, has the ability to freely jump between her multiversal selves, granting her an almost endless supply of skills, from kung-fu from an action-star self (who seems to essentially be our reality’s actual Michelle Yeoh) to enhanced lung capacity from a blind singer self.
It’s an intimidating amount of plot and exposition to chew through early on, the base premise still being untangled almost an hour into the film, so the strong performances from Yeoh and Quan are absolutely crucial to the first half of EEAAO working at all. Yeoh channels the fear and frustration of a middle-aged woman who’s sure she could have made more of her life, projecting this dissatisfaction out in ways that drive her loved ones away, while Quan makes a simply wonderful return to acting after his ‘80s career as a child star was cut short by systemic industry racism.
Switching between distinct personalities on the fly, he makes seemingly light work of having to be an apocalyptic hero, a shrinking violet, and even a Wong Kar-Wai-esque doomed romantic in quick succession, oftentimes even within the same scene. Also, and almost as importantly, he aces his fight scenes, him and Yeoh making for a thrilling action duo. Combat here is silly and fun, martial arts melding with reality warps to make for some truly unique bouts, Yeoh in particular further cementing her status as one of modern cinema’s great warriors.
Not all the set-pieces in EEAAO are made equal though and for every cheerworthy moment there’s one of equivalent cringe. As was evident in their smaller, but still nutso, last film Swiss Army Man, the Daniels’ sense of sincerity is counterbalanced by a very mid-2010s ‘lol epic random zany’ internet style of humour and a lot of the bigger swings in that direction here get annoying very quickly. What in particular works for you and what doesn’t is never going to be an exact science, but I found myself bouncing off all of the gross-out stuff far more than I ever did in Swiss Army Man, and it’s a well that EEAAO returns to a lot. Most egregious is the already much talked about ‘hot dog fingers-verse’, a realm in which all human fingers have been replaced by long floppy hot dogs that spew mustard and ketchup, a conceit that the Daniels clearly find hilarious and keep returning to, but I found utterly unbearable.
It’s an inevitability in a ‘throw everything at the walls’ approach that not every concept can be a winner but, impressively, the Daniels do, just about, keep control of the chaos, building to a cacophonous crescendo of nonsense before suddenly cutting the noise and giving us some wonderful moments of pure, quiet feeling. Alternating between silence and deep heart-to-hearts, it makes for a finale that confirms the humanism of the piece, even in a surprisingly lovely moment where the humans involved are turned into pebbles with googly eyes. There may have been a cleaner way to get to this cathartic ending of a family finally speaking their kinder truths to one another, but it’d be hard to argue that these earnest moments of reconciliation would have been as much of a relief if they hadn’t been preceded by fights involving power-granting buttplugs or men being turned into confetti.