Once in a while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes a decision that is so monumentally cool that it feels seismic. When Annie Hall beat Star Wars for Best Picture in 1977, for instance, or when Kevin Kline won Best Supporting Actor for A Fish Called Wanda in 1989, or Marisa Tomei got Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny in 1993, a decision so startling that many assumed Jack Palance, presenting the award, had read out the wrong name. The films and performances that are usually considered Oscar-bait, you see, do not normally lean comedic.
Therefore, when a surrealist comedy leads the Oscar race with eleven nominations, it feels like a show of intent. The Oscars need Everything Everywhere All At Once more than the other way around, though it would be grand to see this film and these performances rewarded. Directed by two friends (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) jointly called Daniels, this film — streaming in India on BookMyShow Stream — is genuinely audacious and original and startling. It’s a magic trick, and it’s rather impossible to describe.
Still, let me roll sleeves up and give it a try: Think of one of those multiverse movies (Spider-Man: No Way Home or Doctor Strange: In The Multiverse Of Madness) which use infinite parallel universes to allow comic-book companies to resurrect dead characters. “I’m Batman,” growls Michael Keaton reprising his 1989 Batman voice for an upcoming The Flash film. Yet Everything Everywhere All At Once doesn’t co-opt multiverses in order to tread roads already travelled — roads anyone may already have travelled. Actually, you’d do better to imagine The Matrix, except here the Chosen One is chosen for her complete lack of specialisation.
This is the story of a Chinese-American immigrant who runs a laundromat being audited for her taxes. Evelyn Quan is played by the fantastical Michelle Yeoh, and when we meet her she’s yoyo-ing at the end of her tether. Her husband wants to give her a divorce, she’s lying to her father about her daughter being a lesbian, she’s fat-shaming said daughter, and she is throwing all her frazzled energy into throwing a Chinese New Year party. More threatening than family are taxes, with a harrumphing inspector coming down on her hard. This is when Evelyn’s husband tells her to put her left shoe on her right foot, her right shoe on her left foot, and enter a parallel universe.
She has to save the world, you see.
With every life choice creating a new universe of possibilities, Evelyn has been shoehorned by her own decisions into her current unsatisfying life — in another world she’s a glamorous movie superstar, much like Yeoh herself is an absolute legend in Hong Kong cinema and an icon in Asia while being depressingly under-celebrated in America, despite playing a Bond-girl in Tomorrow Never Dies and the crossover success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Yeoh is an actress capable of everything, yet her Evelyn is mediocre as can be, a woman who fails and flails in many a direction, and she essentially is the right person to save the world because she hasn’t used up any of her super-ness. She’s the Evelyn who is most extraordinarily ordinary.
Yeoh is gobsmackingly magnificent in the role — or roles, shall we say, given just how many Evelyns she has to shoulder: she’s brittle, she’s brilliant, she’s courageous, she’s cowering, she is the title of this film and it’s a privilege to bask in her glow. She is staunchly supported by a superb Ke Huy Quan as her husband Waymond. He grounds the film with an achingly emotional performance, but also has a phenomenal action setpiece where he takes down a bunch of security guards armed only with a fanny-pack. Everyone has to pitch in and do everything, you see, and that’s why a wondrous Jamie Lee Curtis, as the malevolent income tax inspector, makes Evelyn cry but is also made to cry, by Evelyn.
This, after all, is a film that balances a buttplug fight-scene with a movie-star romance straight out of In The Mood For Love. And with Ratatouille.
The Daniels throw everything at the screen, which makes for an overwhelmingly kaleidoscopic experience, yet the sorcery of Everything Everywhere All At Once is that it is, for all its daftness, a deeply sentimental and profoundly humane film, a film about choices and opportunities and family. The ties that bind us are frail, and this film — that dabbles in philosophies from determinism to nihilism — doubles down with chopsocky fury. There is no restraint in sight. As Evelyn, in the shape of a boulder in a human-less universe, tells her daughter, another rock: there are no rules. Is a mandala just another bagel?
Even when playing for shock, there is poetry. This film, like its magnificent leading lady, possesses that undefinable, unarguable quality: Grace. I don’t just mean balletic leaps during action sequences — though of course there are those too — but there is an elegance to the way ideas come together, a Wile E Coyote gag and a Baryshnikov twirl, playing out, as per the title, all at the same time. There is, for instance, one universe where people have elongated hot dogs for fingers, fingers that, when bitten, bleed ketchup and mustard, and even this universe of warped biology is not all horrible: these humans, unable to manoeuvre their oblong fingers, have started playing the piano with their toes. In each and every world, we make way for art.
Streaming Tip Of The Week
On the heels of the blockbuster success of Pathaan, The Romantics (Netflix) is a documentary about the history and culture of Yash Raj Films. Actors and writers speak candidly, led by Shah Rukh Khan who roasts Yash Chopra (“When will you learn to direct?”, he asks.)
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.