Stream It or Skip It?


Why drum your fingers on the tabletop impatiently waiting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to do mind-blowing things with the multiverse concept when you’ve got Everything Everywhere All at Once (now streaming on Netflix)? Writer-directors Daniels – a.k.a. Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan, music video helmsmen whose feature debut was the rather nutty Swiss Army Man – began developing their idea more than a decade ago, and watched as Into the Spider-Verse, Rick and Morty, and the MCU beat them to the zeitgeist. But their story, about a harried Chinese-American woman who learns how to tap into her many parallel selves, is perhaps the most unbridled and boundlessly creative exploration of the multiverse concept to date. It was a labor of love for its makers, who got a lot of love in return, via profuse critical acclaim and a frenzied cult following that pushed it to a surprise Oscar for Best Picture. So does it meet the hype? It might take a couple watches to fully comprehend its inspired lunacy, but yes, it does.

The Gist: Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) keeps putting googly eyes on things, and it drives Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) nuts. Life is overwhelming her: Their laundromat is being audited by the IRS and she plows through piles and piles of receipts. Her elderly father Gong Gong (James Hong) has just arrived from China. She struggles to accept that her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is gay. The washers and dryers spin and spin and spin behind her as she multitasks – receipts, Father is here, meet my girlfriend, fetch customers’ shirts, check the noodles in five minutes, and Waymond’s damn googly eyes keep googling back at her. Waymond wants to talk but she pushes him aside. She shouldn’t, but she doesn’t realize he has divorce papers in his hands. Perhaps he’s had enough of her sour disposition. Joy is just as frustrated – she leaves the laundromat, upset, and when Evelyn chases after her, all she can tell her daughter is, “You… you have to try and eat healthier. You are getting fat.”

It’s been this way for a long time for the Wang family. They live in an overstuffed, cluttered apartment above the laundromat. One gets the sense that they work and work and work and work and what’s their reward? An appointment at the IRS office. Waymond and Evelyn push Gong Gong’s wheelchair through the monolithic IRS building, and while they’re on the elevator, Waymond starts acting strangely. We noticed it earlier, when Waymond’s decidedly out-of-character martial-arts flipping and twirling played on the laundromat’s security monitors behind Evelyn’s back. So she’s not having a nervous breakdown, although maybe all this craziness could be interpreted as such in some other movie – some other movie that isn’t about to splinter its protagonist’s mind into the many iterations of her countless parallel-universe selves.

And it couldn’t happen at a better time, as a pathetic, power-tripping slob of an auditor – you may laugh at this name – Deirdre Beaubeirdre (a priceless Jamie Lee Curtis) lectures and belittles them. How, exactly, this singularity or convergence or string-theoretic shenaniganny happening occurs isn’t important, possibly because it’s too complicated to summarize, so I’ll be reductionist: It’s ludicrous and random, although it starts to make sense after you let the movie steamroller you, and then watch it a second time. I will say there’s an “Alpha” universe, which is ground zero, and Alpha Waymond occupies Regular Waymond in order to tell Regular Evelyn that she’s key to defeating an all-consuming destructive evil entity named Jobu Tupaki (“You’re just making up sounds!” Evelyn interjects, giving voice to what’s going through our very minds that instant). And in order to do that, she has to learn how to “verse-jump,” which allows her to adopt the extraordinary abilities of her infinite selves, e.g., the one who knows kung fu, or the one who’s a hibachi chef, or, for reasons best left unexplained, the one who has hot dogs for fingers. All this absolutely comes in handy when all hell breaks loose in the IRS office, and the fate of everything rests in the balance.

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once
Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Outside superficial comparisons to other “multiverse” films, Everything Everywhere All at Once is singular. I will say one of the parallel universes felt deeply evocative of a children’s book, William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which is one of the most emotionally wrenching pieces of literature I’ve ever read. I subsequently learned Daniels’ noted it as an inspiration, which I found profoundly comforting.

Performance Worth Watching: Yeoh is patient, fully committed to the film’s gonzo sensibilities and resonant emotional beats. Quan in many ways carries the film’s big, full, beating heart. Hsu exhibits an impressively broad range playing a character whose complexities shouldn’t be divulged here. And Curtis is the comic ace in the hole, asked to do truly ludicrous things, and wholesale embracing the opportunity (her signature line: “It’s cold, unlovable bitches like us that make the world go ’round.”). These four comprise an impeccably strong core cast; I cannot in good conscience highlight just one.

Memorable Dialogue: So, is Evelyn up for this adventure through time, space and the mind?

Alpha Waymond: Now, you can either come with me and live up to your ultimate potential, or lie here and live with the consequences!

Evelyn: I want to lie here.

Sex and Skin: None, although there are creepy things the hot dog-finger people do that are pretty suggestive.

'Everything, Everywhere All At Once'
Photo: Everett Collection

Our Take: Or DOES the fate of everything rest in the balance? This can’t be yet another save-the-world plot, can it? Well, it’s not, so feel free to breathe a sigh of relief. You’ll have to put in some work to fully appreciate Everything Everywhere All at Once in its myriad complexities, although it’s not burdensome. My advice: Submit to the film’s overwhelming visual and thematic rigmarole, let it confuse you, let it be about emotional and sensory response, then watch it again to make some sense of it. And then, I suspect, watch it a third time and let it further blossom, and again a fourth time, and on and on.

Repeat viewing seems inevitable, to get caught in a cycle of deepening appreciation, which is very much about such cycles. Daniels set scenes during a Chinese New Year party and the annual tax-file trudge for a reason: to underscore the cyclical nature of the clock, of the calendar, of life itself, with a story about the cycle of abuse, which began with Gong Gong’s cruel indifference toward his daughter (“It’s a girl, I’m sorry” goes one flashback fragment dramatizing the day of her birth) and continues through Evelyn and her harshly critical rejection of Joy, whose name is both on the nose and ironic, considering how certain plot developments play out. Meanwhile, the wash-and-dry, wash-and-dry cycle continues in the background; it’s very much Evelyn’s business in every way.

Daniels balance surreal comedy and heartfelt emotion keenly and carefully. Those tones surface most notably in the Waymond character, played with crucial warmth and sensitivity by Quan (in his first acting role in decades; it’s a triumph), making the most of a perspicacious script. The pain of a disintegrating family is undercut by the absurdity of any imaginable parallel universe, even those rendered alive by accidental malapropisms, coming to life in Evelyn – an absurdity which, one can’t help but assume, cleverly functions as a parallel to Daniels’ creative process. “Verse-jumping” is triggered by highly improbable actions, and they range from impulsively eating a tube of lip balm to cramming objects in one’s derriere; this is where Looney Tunes and the Farrelly Bros. intersect. Anything goes in this film, and the tone smoothly transitions from raucous and funny to touching and heartbreaking.

Everything Everywhere is a bold film, rich with Asian-American representation – it’s deeply rooted in the immigrant experience – and visual and thematic experimentation. The comedy is wild, overstimulating and exhausting, but ultimately cathartic. It’s underscored with a broad, universal idea about our need to stave off the darkness with some hope, love, acceptance or whatever positive force we need to summon in order to survive. Joy is on the precipice of despair, Waymond is a source of optimistic energy, and Evelyn is about to lose both of them. Why would you make enemies of those you love the most? Why? There is no good reason, this movie insists. None whatsoever.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Exercise patience and a willingness to meet Daniels on their own lunatic turf, and Everything Everywhere All at Once offers a bounty of rewards.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at

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