Directors/Screenplay – Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, Producers – Daniel Kwan, Mike Larocca, Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Daniel Scheinert & Jonathan Wang, Photography – Larkin Seiple, Music – Son Lux, Visual Effects Supervisor – Zak Stoltz, Special Effects Supervisor – Jonathan Kombrinck, Makeup Effects – Jason Hamer at Hamer FX, Production Design – Jason Kisvarday. Production Company – Gozie Agbo/Year of the Rat Productions/Ley Line Entertainment.
Michelle Yeoh (Evelyn Wang), Stephanie Hsu (Joy Wang/Jobu Tapaki), Ke Huy Quan (Waymond Wang), Jamie Lee Curtis (Deirdre Beaubeirdra), James Hong (Gong Gong), Tallie Medel (Becky Sregor), Jenny Slate (Debbie), Biff Wiff (Rick), Harry Shum Jr (Chad)
Evelyn Wang runs a laundromat with her husband Waymond. She argues with their daughter Joy, mostly over Joy having a girlfriend, causing an annoyed Joy to leave. Evelyn, Waymond and Evelyn’s aged father Gong Gong are required to attend an IIRS audit by Deirdre Beaubeirdra. In the elevator, Waymond is taken over by what he tells Evelyn is another self in the multiverse. The Evelyn from his timeline created a technology that allows people to move between similar universes, swap into the bodies and import the skills of different selves. He leaves Evelyn with a set of instructions. Evelyn enacts these, only to be plunged into a mind-boggling array of alternate realities in which Waymond becomes a skilled combatant tackling a possessed Deirdre in a fight that trashes the IRS offices. Amid this, Evelyn finds that they face the threat of Jobu Tapaki, a version of Joy from one of the other timelines, whose cynicism and negativity has become so powerful it has created a black hole that is absorbing everything. In the course of flipping between multiple versions of herself, Evelyn comes to realise that she is the one version of herself who has the power to stand up and stop Jobu Tapaki.
Everything Everywhere All at Once was the second film for the duo who call themselves Daniels (in reality Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). In between co-directing a number of short films, music videos and some tv episodes, the two previously made the hilariously bizarre Swiss Army Man (2016) featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse. In the interim, Daniel Scheinert also solo directed the comedy The Death of Dick Long (2019). The film here comes produced by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, best known of recent as the directors of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
The multiverse is an idea that was postulated by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957 in his Many Worlds Solution as a response to the Copenhagen Interpretation in quantum physics. Boiled down to a layman’s terms, this essentially means that each quantum event has an alternate outcome leading to a splitting off of universes based on whether an event happens one way or another. The actual existence of any multiverse is one that is heavily disputed by physicists.
The Alternate History Film has been with us for some time but the idea of what I call the Alternate Timeline began largely with the Star Trek episode Mirror Mirror (1966), which plunged the series’ regular characters into an alternate universe where they met darker versions of themselves. Over the years, assorted genre tv shows have conducted variations on this. In the 1990s, there were a series of lifestyle and romantic fantasies such as Run Lola Run (1998), Sliding Doors (1998), Me Myself I (1999), Possible Loves (2001) and The Butterfly Effect (2004) based around the idea on an individual switching over into a world where their life took an alternate pathway.
In recent years, the multiverse has been appropriated by the Superhero Film, in particular Marvel-based works like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). It should be noted that the assorted DC Comics based superhero tv series that come under the umbrella the Arrowverse conducted a series of multiverse episodes before all of these in their assorted Elseworlds and Crisis on Infinite Earths episodes, while The Flash (2014- ) conducted a series of cross-universe and continuity reboots with a mind-boggling regularity. A more comic usage of the idea not dissimilar to what we have here can be found in the animated tv series Rick and Morty (2013- ).
I have issues with most multiverse stories, particularly of the Mirror Universe and superhero variety. These are really no more than stories about regular characters with different spins on them. They are not genuine Alternate Timeline or Alternate History stories because the stories work backwards ie. they begin with a dark or messed-up version of the regular character (or more recently act as an excuse to wind in versions of characters from previous incarnations) rather than start with positing a change and mapping out how everything would turn out different from there.
Take for example Star Trek’s Mirror Universe, which hinged around an unspecified change in the past – one big enough that the entire Federation goes over to the dark side. With such a wide historic change, it is unlikely that the same circumstances would be identical for Kirk, Spock et al’s parents to have met at the exact same time, that the same sperm and egg would be fertilised and that they and the rest of the crew would have gone through the same circumstances that brought them all together to serve on the alternate Enterprise; and then over a generation later that the exact same thing would happen for the crew of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992-9) to come together and meet their alternate selves. It boggles coincidence.
Everything Everywhere All at Once does play lip service to causality as we see a device with a display that shows the different branching pathways. On the other hand, the film has its cake and eats it too ie. if humans were born with hot dogs for fingers, would humanity have even evolved tool-making capacity let alone a society and Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis been born as they are now and come together to settle down? The ripples created would be so wide and divergent that the world we would have would surely be unrecognisable in any way.
All of that said, Everything Everywhere All at Once takes its concept and runs with it in completely madcap ways. Even from the opening scene, the film is a bewildering mix with dialogue that flips back and forward between English and subtitled Mandarin and Cantonese. Not to mention the opening takes place in a set that seems to operate as combined dining room/kitchen and office where everything has been cluttered with junk even to the point it is overspilling from literally every corner and blocking the stairs down. The introduction of the laundry below comes with Michelle Yeoh madly pinging back and forward between various customers and crises with her father and daughter.
About the time they head off to the meeting with IRS auditor Jamie Lee Curtis is about the point that Everything Everywhere All at Once goes nuts. There are the appealingly wacky scenes where Ke Huy Quan pulls Michelle Yeoh aside in the elevator, opens an umbrella and quickly drafts a list of instructions before he returns to his regular self unaware of what happened and they go off to meet Jamie Lee. And when Michelle does enact the instructions, she finds herself snatched into the office’s broom closet having more rapid-paced conversations with the alternate Ke Huy before a possessed Jamie Lee attempts to break in. The Daniels spin everything on its head with a whiplash rapidity – none the more so than when Michelle punches Jamie Lee out still thinking she is possessed whereupon security is called and Ke Huy whips into operation, downing an entire armed detachment using solely a fanny pack as a melee weapon.
The film comes at you with such a conceptual rapidity that it requires more than one viewing to take it all in. The Daniels have an enormous amount of fun with the multiverse scenarios they spin us through including everything from Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese opera singer to a movie star (attending the premiere of the same film we are watching), to where Jamie Lee Curtis becomes a sumo wrestler to where Michelle and Jamie Lee are a couple in the universe where everybody has hot dogs for fingers. Michelle and Stephanie Hsu fight through various scenarios where they are prison guard and inmate, combatants in a Wu Xia film, are animated children’s drawings or piñatas, where Michelle is a chef alongside a co-worker who has a raccoon controlling his actions from under his hat (there is an ongoing gag about Ratatouille (2007) that runs throughout), and even end up as rocks in a universe where life has not evolved.
The film becomes a glorious tribute to familial dysfunction and being a screw-up. At one point, Michelle Yeoh is told: “You’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything.” The major emotional hinge that the film hangs on is a reconciliation between Michelle and daughter Stephanie Hsu who has gone over to the allegorical dark side – a bagel of negativity that has become a black hole that is in danger of swallowing up the entire universe – while the climactic scenes are a struggle to pull Stephanie back at the same time as flipping through a bewildering blur of alternate scenarios.
The film also brings together an amazing cast. Michelle Yeoh gets the role of a lifetime – it is worth noting that the part that was one originally intended for Jackie Chan. The Daniels also bring back names that have been forgotten for a number of years. The most surprising of these is Ke Huy Quan, once Short Round, Harrison Ford’s young sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and then in The Goonies (1985), who sadly to hear had retired from acting in the early 1990s due to a lack of offers of roles for Asian characters. Here he does a sharp and funny swing between milquetoast husband and snappily in charge. The other name is James Hong, known for roles in Blade Runner (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Hong hasn’t disappeared – he’s been largely doing voice work, most notedly with the Kung Fu Panda films, but shows an amazingly spry litheness despite being in his nineties. Jamie Lee Curtis, while seemingly stuck repeating her trademark Halloween role these days, also reminds us that she can do comedy (and very well too).