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There's a multiverse of roads not taken in 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'

Michelle Yeoh stars as a woman who suddenly develops the power to leap between parallel universes in the action-adventure-fantasy <em>Everything Everywhere All at Once.</em>
Michelle Yeoh stars as a woman who suddenly develops the power to leap between parallel universes in the action-adventure-fantasy Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Multiverses are having something of a moment, popping up in recent movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and upcoming ones like Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. It's refreshing, then, to get a new multiverse movie this week that doesn't spring from the world of comic-book superheroes. It's called Everything Everywhere All at Once — an apt title for a movie that imagines the existence of thousands of alternate timelines, featuring thousands of alternate versions of ourselves. It was written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, also known as Daniels, who seem intent on topping the anything-goes audacity of Swiss Army Man, their 2016 comedy featuring Daniel Radcliffeas a flatulent corpse.

That strain of juvenile humor pops up frequently here: At one point, characters have to make inventive use of a trophy in order to jump from one universe to the next. But for all its gross sight gags and bizarre supernatural conceits, the movie has one pretty coherent purpose: to provide a dazzling actor's showcase for Michelle Yeoh.

Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant who lives in a cramped apartment with her husband, Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan. It's a stressful time for the Wangs: Evelyn has her hands full bickering with their teenage daughter, Joy — a terrific Stephanie Hsu — and planning a birthday party for her ailing father, played by the great 93-year-old veteran James Hong. On top of that, the family business, a laundromat, is being audited by the IRS. The action really begins at the IRS office where Evelyn meets with their auditor, well played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who urges the Wangs to get their paperwork in order.

Evelyn might think she knows the story of her life, but she doesn't know the half of it. Through an extremely bizarre series of events, she learns about the existence of all those other universes, each with its own version of Evelyn. She also learns that she's the only person who can save the whole multiverse from destruction by some powerful force that has taken hold of her daughter, Joy. (As a story of conflict and reconciliation between an Asian mother and daughter, Everything Everywhere All at Once would make a nifty double bill with the current Pixar fantasy Turning Red.)

In order to defeat evil, Evelyn must repeatedly jump between her universe and others, sort of like a video-game avatar, and absorb crucial knowledge from those other Evelyns, all of whom represent different paths she could have taken through life. There's Evelyn the Hong Kong movie star, Evelyn the Peking opera singer and Evelyn the teppanyaki chef. Imagine a very long, unusually surreal Choose Your Own Adventure novel in which all the pages have been torn out and glued back together at random, and you'll have some sense of how this movie plays.

All this Matrix-style interdimensional hopping, plus the nonstop martial-arts action and in-your-face slapstick, makes Everything Everywhere All at Once an often frenetic viewing experience, and I checked out more than once the first time I saw it. But there are playful ideas beneath that busy surface. Notably, all those other Evelyns seem to be leading more fulfilling lives than Evelyn the unhappy wife, mom and laundromat owner. This is very much a movie about regret and disappointment, about the frustration of feeling that life's best opportunities have passed you by. It's no wonder that one of Evelyn's timelines pays homage to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, one of the greatest movies ever made about the road not taken.

Adding to that subtext is the casting of Michelle Yeoh, who's one of Asia's top stars but, despite some recent supporting roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, has never had the spectacular Hollywood career she's deserved. Directors Kwan and Scheinert are clearly trying to rectify that. This movie is as passionate and exhaustive a love letter to an actor as I've ever seen, and Yeoh's performance combines action, comedy, drama and emotion in ways she's never done before. Ke Huy Quan is working just as hard here as a neglected husband whose reserves of quiet strength Evelyn takes for granted. This is a big comeback role for Quan, whom you may remember as the '80s child star from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies.

For all its cosmic craziness, Everything Everywhere All at Once has a simple emotional message: It's about how the members of this immigrant family learn to cherish each other again. It's also about making peace with the life you've lived — and the ones you haven't. And that sort of sums up how I feel about this funny, messy, moving and often exasperating movie: There may be a better, more focused version of it in some other universe, but I'm still grateful for the one we've got.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.