Don’t Order the Everything Bagel
If you’re not yet ready for the Metaverse or don’t know what it means, the harassed Simi Valley laundromat owner who’s the star of indie production company A24’s breakthrough hit, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” will help you get there. And she’ll throw some existentialism into the mix.
Michele Yeoh is marvelous as Evelyn, the job-focused, multi-tasking, “I’m-more-competent-than-you-are” superhero of this mind-bending sci-fi story. Within minutes of the film’s opening, she’s fitted with earphones, whisked into a janitor’s closet, and introduced to other universes—in fact, many other universes, since the number is infinite. She’s also taught the mechanics of “verse-jumping,” which can involve any action from peeing one’s pants to eating ChapStick.
The first 45 minutes may leave all but the most experienced virtual reality gamer reeling and confused. Then the human story begins to unfold, in many universes...
The first 45 minutes may leave all but the most experienced virtual reality gamer reeling and confused. Then the human story begins to unfold, in many universes; the universes repeat, bringing some order to the seemingly chaotic Metaverse. Evelyn’s sampling in the multiple universes of lives she could have led reflects the contemporary desire to escape from the tedium and ordinariness of daily existence—through extreme sports, TikTok, horror films, video games, conspiracy theories and, yes, the Metaverse.
“Everything…” upends several movie traditions. For one, our “hero” is a 60-year-old Asian laundromat owner. Another is that it’s a mother-daughter story, not the more typical tale of father and son. Paralleling Evelyn’s mid-life crisis is her daughter Joy’s adolescent angst, portrayed by Stephanie Hsu with emotional nuance. In another universe (or other universes), Joy is also the story’s villain, Jobu Tupaki (again, a captivating Hsu).
Joy/Jobu and Evelyn effectively embody the existential crisis; if everything matters, then nothing matters. If all life has the same valence, then what is the value of any particular way of being? A movie star is a kung-fu expert is a sushi chef is a rock (literally) is a laundromat owner. If it’s all the same, why not escape into the black hole (look for the “everything bagel”)? Why not suicide?
In her superhero role, Evelyn takes on all the enemy’s men, as well as one woman, a wonderfully comedic Jamie Lee Curtis as IRS auditor Deirdre (David Foster Wallace would have appreciated the banality of the IRS Service Center setting). The martial arts moves of Evelyn, and those of her adversaries, are an integral part of the story’s Metaverse. Every conceivable object is put to use—a fanny pack, pet dog, cookie sheet and drumstick, in addition to the traditional ones. Yeoh incredibly (at age 60 she does most of her own stunt work) reprises her role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). Curtis, as the only white person among the stars, seems like a paper doll from another set. Compared to the fascinating faces and physical talents of the Asians who people the film, Curtis is really white, large, ungainly, and very funny.
The superhero-takes-on-all-comers theme is entertaining but excessive. Too many universes and too many martial arts battles can wear down the viewer rather than enhance the narrative. Does one need “Raccacoonie” (rhymes with “Ratatouille”)? Or one more skirmish with the IRS agents? Still, VRers may delight in the multiplicity. Co-writers and directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (sometimes known as the “Daniels”) take their TV and music video experience to a new level. With a not-so-large $25 million budget, they did the VFX themselves with friends, none of whom had been schooled in it.
The narrative that’s burdened by too many fights is a familiar one, told freshly. As Evelyn relives her life’s alternative pasts, and her real past, she comes to appreciate who she is in the present, and the value of those around her, especially her daughter and long-suffering husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan)—he too has his Alpha-verse manly side. To Evelyn’s scorn, Waymond brings cookies to the IRS agent, and tells his wife, “Even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” Evelyn relives her regret and transcends it, and in the process transcends her doubts about her lot in life, about the decisions she has made. Echoes of George Bailey in 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”; George’s angel Clarence is Evelyn’s Metaverse.
Yeoh, Quan, Hsu, Curtis, and James Hong (as Grandpa Gong Gong) give moving performances that rise above the kung fu theatrics and create the heart—a touch of Hollywood—within this remarkable story.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong
Country: United States
Languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese (the latter two mostly subtitled in English)
Runtime: 139 minutes
Other Awards: One win to date (Adobe Editing Award at the SXSW Film Festival, where the film premiered).
Availability: Showing in theaters and for $20 rent or purchase streaming on many sites, including Apple TV, Amazon, redbox. For future expanded availability (and lower prices), see JustWatch here.
Lead image: Facing their business’s IRS audit are the Wang family, left to right, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), and Grandpa Gong Gong (James Hong).