The Daniels have done the impossible: they've made the best Marvel movie and the best immigrant drama of the past decade
In Everything Everywhere All At Once, Michelle Yeoh’s character Evelyn is repeatedly called stubborn. She hurriedly rushes from one task to another, trying to keep her family’s laundromat open even with a looming tax audit, not listening to those around her. She doesn’t connect with her daughter and does not understand the America she now lives in. She does not know it yet, but her husband wants a divorce. Through a series of visible and invisible choices, her life has gotten away from her.
I’ve seen women like this, in my family and in others. Critics have referred to this film as a “sci-fi action comedy”. That misses the point. This is an intimate, closely-observed family drama that just happens to have kung-fu and the multiverse.
And it might be one of the most visually stunning and inventive movies ever made.
Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn and her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) run a struggling laundromat with a looming audit that is lorded over them by a never-gruffer Jamie Lee Curtis. Evelyn’s father, with whom she has a strained relationship, has just arrived from China. Evelyn’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) wants to introduce him to her girlfriend, which Evelyn knows will not go well. Everything she does in her life is done out of fear and insecurity.
Then her husband’s body is taken over by another version of Waymond, saying that he’s come from another universe where she is a genius who figured out how to jump between universes. Evelyn is now a linchpin in the fight against an evil entity named Jobu Tupacki who’s been destroying one universe after another. Within the IRS building where their business-ending audit is taking place, a battle for the universe begins.
Symbolism in film is tricky. Most of the time it’s too showy, trying to tell you how intelligent it is. This film’s symbolism is showy in the way the finale of a fireworks display is showy. Of course it is. That’s the point. Everything Everywhere All At Once has a central plot premise based on a bagel. This movie is not subtle.
But it doesn’t matter. Subtlety is seen as the preferred vehicle for meaning in films, but the Daniels’s style is distraction. Their films are so loud and boisterous and fantastical that you don’t see the emotional turn coming. In their previous film, Swiss Army Man, you’re so wrapped up with the mechanics of using Daniel Radcliffe’s farts as a mode of water transportation, that you don’t realize just how much the main character is deluding himself. In Everything Everywhere All At Once, you’re so wrapped up in sentient raccoons and dildos fights, that the central, personal conflict still comes as a surprise (also, the movie feels so big and epic, you forget it’s mainly set inside of a government building).
In a whirlwind of visual fireworks, the most striking images are the close-ups of Michelle Yeoh’s face as she’s confronted with her failing life.
This film’s casting is a dream come true for cinephiles. Michelle Yeoh is a global superstar who has done everything from being Miss Malaysia to starring in Academy Award-winning films to becoming one of the best martial artists we’ve ever seen on screen. Yet she’s rarely ever had more than a supporting role in American productions. James Hong has been in over 400 productions and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but rarely has anything larger than a bit part. Ke Huy Quan was in two of the biggest American films of the ’80s, The Goonies and Temple of Doom, but has barely been seen in American film since. The film’s casting is a love letter to Asian actors who have been part of the film industry for so long but almost never get their due. They (and up-and-coming star Stephanie Hsu) prove definitely that they have been deserving of leading roles for decades.
It takes an existential cataclysm for an immigrant mother to accept her Chinese-American daughter, and her own failures having come to the US to seek a new life. Everything Everywhere All At Once takes the intimate family drama and high kicks it into another universe. It’s fitting that the Russo brothers, directors and producers of so many Marvel movies, are producers of this film, because the Daniels have done the impossible: they’ve made the best Marvel movie and the best immigrant drama of the past decade.