I don’t just think this is now one of my favourite films of the year thus far, but it’s quite possible it’s somehow pushed aside a dozen other films in my consciousness to become one of my favourite films of all time.
Fuck you, Andrei Tarkovsky! Go to hell, Werner Herzog! Get out of my dreams and into the bin, Stanley Kubrick!
Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I did enjoy the absolute fuck out of this flick, though.
This is an insane flick seemingly put together by two lunatics who egged each other on and kept saying to each other, possibly while stoned, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and then proceeded to film it.
That kind of anarchic spirit, which, let’s face it, rarely can survive the revision process or the years long production process of an actual film, somehow manages to retain a spontaneous and insane energy in a flick that I don’t imagine was easy to make or understand, especially for the people in it.
But thank you for making it all the same. Michelle Yeoh is generally wonderful in all of the movies she’s made for over 40 years, but she’s rarely the lead. She is definitely the lead here. She is all of the leads here.
The reason that she is multiple leads is that this flick posits that our universe is one of an infinite number of universes, all branching out from all the decisions we make and the ones we don’t make. Every time we make a choice from either a binary of choices, or an array of them, another universe branches off from that choice or from the opposite of that choice.
I’m not going to pretend I understand it on a metaphysical or cosmological level. I’m not even going to pretend that it makes sense or that these jerks were the first to come up with it. It’s obviously not a new idea, but this is their version of it, and they use it to both amuse us, the great unwashed in the audience, and to tell a touching story about regretting the path one has taken in life, and that having taken different paths wouldn’t necessarily have led to any better an outcome.
Evelyn Wang is tired, frazzled, overwhelmed. She moved to the States when young, was cut off from her family, operated a laundromat for years, had a daughter, and that’s about it. All she sees before herself is misery, and all she sees behind her is missed opportunities. Her daughter Joy is gay, and has a loving girlfriend, but Evelyn is too ashamed to admit to her perpetually disappointed father (played by the legendary James Hong) that his granddaughter is out of the closet.
Evelyn’s husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is a bit of a goof who likes to stick googly eyes on things, but we sense he’s a good hearted man who’s trying to support everyone around him, but feels he’s been rebuffed by Evelyn for too long.
On the eve of grandpa’s birthday, also when their business is about to be royally fucked by the tax people, at a moment when Joy is begging her for acceptance and some attention, Evelyn’s instincts tell her, when faced with Joy’s needs, to tell her she’s getting fat.
It’s a knife to the heart for Joy, and for the viewer too, if you’re a person with a working heart?
The auditor at the tax offices is played by Jaime Lee Curtis, in a weird, straw-like wig, and she is determined to ruin the Wangs, maybe because she’s racist, maybe because she, too has been disappointed in life, and lives to take out her frustrations on others.
She makes a point of gesturing to three awards for excellence at her job that sit on her desk, or just behind her. The awards are shaped suspiciously like…butt plugs? I mean, I don’t actually know what they would look like, but they look like something painful. You could think this jokingly refers to what the Internal Revenue Service does to hardworking business-owners day in day out, when it’s more accurate to say the IRS and most tax departments go after people committing fraud in order to not pay the taxes they’re legally obligated to pay. And then you could also mistakenly think those awards will play no further role in the flick.
I think we’d all be wrong on all counts. Everything starts to go weird, or weirder, from here on in. Waymond turns to Evelyn and explains to her that he is not her Waymond, but a Waymond from another universe, trying to save her from certain doom, and from this awkward situation at the IRS.
Cue insane action, cue Evelyn’s disbelief and inability to really appreciate the seriousness of what’s going on, and cue a plot that hinges on two things a) Evelyn can take on the characteristics of all the other Evelyns throughout the multiverse, and b) there’s someone else who can do the same thing that Evelyn can, but is using that power to destroy all the Evelyns and pretty much all the universes in existence.
That’s a lot to take in. Some people from this other so-called Alpha universe can briefly occupy the consciousness of the same “bodies” in these other universes, but they have to have these weird ear buds, and do weird, unexpected things in order to create these jump points. This can include eating a chapstick, putting your shoes on opposite feet, telling an enemy that you love them, and, in the most hideous example, aggressively using the aforementioned butt plugs.
There are insane action sequences. Waymond manages to take down a whole bunch of armed security guards using nothing but his fanny pack, and that’s even not close to the madness that this flick unleashes. When the primary universe-jumping antagonist is revealed, she can do all sorts of insane things, including making people’s heads explode, presumably because there’s a universe that consists of nothing but confetti.
And then there’s people being beaten to death with dildos.
It’s… a lot to take, and it gets even insaner from there. There is a universe where life never evolved, and there’s just rocks that think their thoughts at each other. Because Evelyn tells the IRS lady that she loves her, there’s a universe in which they’re a couple, but because of something to do with hotdogs, it’s also a universe where people have hotdog-like fingers, which only complicates their relationship further.
A lot of this is flat out bizarre, much of it is hilarious, some of it made me roll my eyes so much I think they turned into washing machines, if only briefly, but I feel like it kinda hangs together really well.
There are these times when Evelyn flashes to a universe in which she never married Waymond, and stayed behind in China, and became a movie action star who has a similar level of fame and adulation as, you guessed it, Michelle Yeoh. When she bumps into Waymond at the premiere of one of her films, the film transforms into an achingly good approximation of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, with Waymond as Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Evelyn as Maggie Cheung, I guess.
That sounds like a gag, but it’s not played as a gag. The sequence, which seems like a throwaway joke, points to Evelyn’s conviction that marrying Waymond was the massive stumbling block that fucked up the rest of her life, but he at least makes his case that maybe that’s not the case. There’s a much appreciated way in which this alternate universe is emotionally woven into the story, into what the characters are doing, into what Evelyn is meant to realise before it’s all too late.
Other sequences are played purely for their fuckery value, though, and that’s okay. I still laughed. Evelyn misremembers the Pixar film Ratatouille horribly in a conversation, remembering the film as having a massive raccoon on another chef’s head, and of course another universe springs up where her co-worker is the guy with the raccoon on his head under the chef’s hat, leading to her cruelty (of outing him) but also a further sequence where she has to ‘operate’ him like the raccoon did in order to save his little pal.
How does it all tie together? Little decisions in all of these different universes make little changes in the other ones, in a strange, cascading way. What’s the point of that? Well, some of our decisions seems meaningful, many of them seem pointless, but they have impacts whether we want to or not.
And what was the decision that nearly wrecked everything everywhere for all time? Not accepting her daughter, not loving her the way she deserved, and not, in the words a desperate Waymond begs her to embrace, just being kind. Even if everything is fucked up and it’s all chaos, if she could just bring herself to make these different, disparate, disconnected but completely connected decisions with kindness at the forefront of her mind, maybe the multiverse won’t be completely obliterated?
As silly as this flick sounds, as anarchic and bonkers, I swear I was sobbing happy tears at the joyful ending of this glorious flick. Michelle Yeoh is magnificent in every version that they can create of her, getting to show all the aspects of her acting prowess that she’s had for decades but rarely gotten to display because of typecasting. Stephanie Hsu as Joy is the aching broken heart of the flick, and she gets so many great scenes.
Even James Hong as the stern, wheelchair-bound patriarch gets great scenes, but come on, Ke Huy Quan, best known for playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom all those years ago, almost walks away with the film. Yes, he gets some kick-ass actions scenes, showing off the fight choreography skills he’s been deploying behind the scenes for decades, but it’s his heartfelt, sublime exhortation to be kind that sticks with me like a bunch of googly eyes stuck to my heart.
9 times there will not be a more bonkers film in this year or any other out of 10
“You are not unlovable. There is always something to love. Even in a stupid, stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with our feet.” – just like the Buddha said - Everything Everywhere All at Once