Director – Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 139m
Do you know kung fu? A launderette owner in trouble with the IRS is sucked into serial, parallel worlds to defeat the being who threatens to annihilate the multiverse – out in cinemas in the UK Friday, May 13th
You could describe it as a Cubist take on The Matrix. Or a mother-daughter relationship drama. Or a multiverse movie. Or a film about filing taxes with the IRS. Or a (multiple set of) romance(s). Or a Michelle Yeoh action movie. Or a Chinese American movie. Or a film put together unlike any other you’ve ever seen. All these descriptions would be accurate.
Chinese American Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) runs her own business. A launderette (or laundromat in American parlance). She sits at the table in her apartment which is covered with piles of receipts. She is sorting through them in preparation for an upcoming interview with the IRS. She isn’t sure she’s ready.
This pressing issue aside, her life is not without its challenges. Her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, formerly the kid from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Steven Spielberg, 1983; The Goonies, Richard Donner, 1985) is attempting to file for divorce and wants her to sign the papers. She isn’t getting on too well with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), despite her approval of Joy’s girlfriend Becky (Talie Medal). Her ageing dad Gong Gong (James Hong) is also proving a handful.
In the lift going up to the offices of the IRS examiner, Evelyn is unexpectedly presented with a stark choice by her husband… Or, more accurately, someone possessing her husband’s body who claims to be a version of her husband in a parallel dimension… She can either exit the lift, turn left as planned and go to her IRS interview… Or, she can turn right and go into the janitor’s closet in order to save the multiverse from a malignant evil being threatening its annihilation. A clear-cut choice, and it’s obvious which one she should take. So she goes to the IRS meeting as planned to be confronted by Auditor Of The Month award winner Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Dragged backward from her scheduled meeting by forces neither she nor we understand, however, Evelyn soon finds herself in the janitor’s closet confronted by a vengeful version of Deirdre from a parallel universe. The trouble is, she finds her consciousness switching constantly between the interview in this world and the closet fight in the other one. (Got that? Don’t worry – it’ll make complete sense when you watch it.) And while she’s fighting in the closet, she’s falling asleep in the interview.
The problems in the multiverse (i.e. the sum of all potential universes, including ours) stem from a being called Jobu Tupaki (Hsu again), who without wishing to put too fine a point on it is Evelyn’s daughter in one of the other worlds who has decided she’s had enough and wants to surrender herself to the void of nothingness, cast in the form of a giant, black bagel, taking her own and all other universes down with her when she goes. Unless Evelyn can stop her.
As the narrative progresses, the number of worlds through which Evelyn passes increases, although as the title suggests she’s in most of them at the same time. Cue lots of rapid editing so she starts changing between something like eight different universes, often a different one with each shot. One world (which feels suspiciously like it’s been styled after a Wong Kar-wai movie) has her as a rich and famous, successful martial arts champion and movie star; another features people who have hot dog sausages for fingers, yet another has people controlled by raccoons sitting on their heads. A sequence towards the end even casts mother and daughter as immobile rocks, communicating by subtitles.
This is one of those US movies which is to all intents and purposes a Chinese movie shot on American soil; a fair amount of the spoken dialogue is in Mandarin and a little is in Cantonese. But a sizeable chunk of it is in American English, and there’s enough of that to go into the (English language version) trailer. What’s more, that gets round the problem of the English-speaking characters in numerous Chinese movies written by people for whom English is not a first language: The English-speaking characters here are convincingly written, notably giving Curtis the opportunity for a career best performance. (Yeoh is pretty impressive too.) Most of the Chinese-American characters switch between Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and American English, equally at home in all (the US-born Joy is fluent in US English but struggles to talk with her grandpa in Cantonese).
Jobu Tupacki is constantly trying to lure Evelyn towards the bagel, located behind giant white curtains in a vast white hall like something out of a movie made by Dr. Seuss if Dr.Seuss made movies (and if you’re lucky enough ever to have seen The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T, (Roy Rowland, 1953), which he scripted, you’ll know it would have fit right in).
The rapid cutting between different world is very different from yet reminiscent of the ‘speeded up film’ pixillation technique used in Neighbours (Norman McLaren, 1952), Émotion (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1966), The Wizard Of Speed And Time (Mike Jittlov, 1979) and a number of early films by Shinya Tsukamoto including Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). EEAAO has the same frenetic energy, and although clearly a live action production borders on the edge of animation (definition: films made a frame at a time rather than a shot at a time).
It derives energy from other sources too. Just as The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999) put a cast of Western actors through martial arts boot camp to train them to do stunts comparable to those of Hong Kong action movies of yore, EEAAO goes one better by employing one of the great performers from late 1980s era Hong Kong, Michelle Yeoh, who is a highly accomplished actor to boot. There are fight scenes galore here, but none of them get in the way of the storytelling.
The whole thing might be seen as an art house riff on The Matrix, but it’s considerably less po-faced and a lot more fun, not least on the part of the two writer-directors. In order to access the abilities of their counterparts in other universes within the multiverse, characters often have to access specific material items to gain the powers. This level of irreverence is perhaps illustrated as well as anything by the two male fighters who need to insert Deirdre’s awards as butt plugs into the appropriate offices in order to access a fight ability. It sounds thoroughly distasteful, but in fact is both enjoyable and hilarious to watch (while some part of your brain is telling itself, this should be revolting, but is actually really, really funny). Elsewhere, one fight scene involves whirling, synthetic penises as weapons of choice.
The way this is put together, the sheer breakneck speed of it, the non-stop humour, the cutting… it’s almost as if the writer-directors have taken a long, hard look at The Matrix and reconceived it via the multiple viewpoints of Cubism to produce something entirely new. Yet, on another level, it’s nothing like The Matrix: this is, to all intents and purposes, a drama about reconnecting with one’s estranged, immediate family from whom one has become separated thanks to the seemingly innumerable and insurmountable pressures of modern life. It’s hard to imagine liking another movie quite as much this year.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, May 13th.