The list of women actors who haven’t had the hugely successful careers they deserve would fill a very long parchment scroll, and Michelle Yeoh’s name would be on it. Though many American moviegoers weren’t familiar with Yeoh until the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies—to be followed a few years later by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—she’d been part of the 1990s Hong Kong film explosion, perhaps most notably as one of the stars, along with Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui, of Johnnie To’s nutso (and great) 1993 fantasy adventure Heroic Trio. For that reason alone, it’s a thrill to see Yeoh’s career thriving, no matter what you end up thinking about her latest project, the action fantasy Everything Everywhere All at Once, directed by the filmmaking duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who go by the sobriquet Daniels. Everything Everywhere is fringey and wayward, too often frenetic only for craziness’ sake. But Yeoh anchors it. When the story around her flails, she gives you plenty to hang onto. She may have begun her career as an action star, but she also has a face that holds you. She’s equal parts gravity and celestial radiance.
Everything Everywhere is a film about family—and about the pressures and expectations Chinese parents exert on their children, specifically—dressed up as a head trip, with a middle-aged woman as its superhero. Yeoh’s character, Evelyn, is the respectable, stressed-out owner of a laundry facility, which she runs with her mischievous but also somewhat retiring husband, Waymond. (He’s played, wonderfully, by Ke Huy Quan, the Vietnamese-born performer who had early career success as a child actor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, only to find that roles for grown-up Asian actors in American films were scarce through most of the 1990s and early 2000s.) As the film opens, Evelyn is planning a birthday party for her elderly and eternally disapproving father (James Hong), visiting from China; he all but disowned her when she left for America years ago. Her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is in a serious relationship with a woman, a fact Evelyn is reluctant to accept. And she’s facing an IRS audit: the agent is played by a frowning, persnickety Jamie Lee Curtis, a figure of grotesquerie with a too-tight turtleneck stretched across her frumpy (and obviously prosthetic) pot belly.
Yet that summary doesn’t even begin to suggest the multiple directions Daniels take with this story; its digressions shoot out like the spokes of a sputnik chandelier. (Daniels’ last film was the similarly unhinged black comedy Swiss Army Man, from 2016, starring Paul Dano as a man marooned on a deserted island and Daniel Radcliffe as the corpse he befriends.) Once Waymond and Evelyn reach the IRS office, Waymond’s character shifts: he claps a headset on his wife’s head and informs her that the fate of a complex multiverse rests in her hands. Then he proceeds to kick the butts of IRS security, using his trusty fanny-pack as a weapon. Evelyn, meanwhile, sees her life as she’s lived it pass before her eyes, and also sees another path she might have taken in an alternate universe. (This is one of the wittiest gags in the movie, a playful poke at the idea that because Yeoh actually was a superstar in a country that wasn’t the United States, her success may as well have been earned in another universe.) There’s more, much more: in one of the multiverses, humans have wriggly hotdogs for fingers; an extended gag involving butt plugs wears out its welcome; a divine but not benevolent entity named Jobu Tupaki wreaks havoc at every turn.
There’s a distinct and welcome sense of playfulness to Daniels’ style, and they delight in staging the picture’s numerous martial-arts action sequences. It’s a pleasure to watch Yeoh spring to action, her character finding a new lease on life through speed and movement; her every move is rendered with ballerina grace. (It should surprise no one that Yeoh began her career as a ballet dancer, and even as she inches toward 60, she’s still got the moves.) But Daniels have too many ideas, and they don’t seem to realize that jettisoning the mediocre ones would have made the great ones shine. How many butt-plug jokes does one movie really need?
The best element of Everything, Everywhere is its exploration of the fairly straightforward idea that lies beneath all the craziness: although there is often stress, acknowledged or otherwise, between any mother and daughter, the relationships between Asian moms and their daughters tend to be particularly fraught. Evelyn is particularly disappointed in Joy for having dropped out of college, but she expresses her displeasure by berating her daughter for getting too fat. These types of remarks are par for the course in some families, regardless of cultural background, but that doesn’t make them any less stinging. Daniels find an unusual and potent metaphor for the layer of roiling frustration that underlies Evelyn and Joy’s love for one another—it’s the movie’s finest conceit (and no, I won’t give it away). But even if you walk away from Everything, Everywhere feeling you’ve just endured a cluttered, exhausting mess, Yeoh’s dazzling charm remains undimmed. Daniels may not be your kind of filmmakers—they’re probably not mine—but anyone who creates this kind of showcase for Yeoh earns a gold star in this universe, or in any other.
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