‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ review: A  migrant story with a human soul

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ review: A migrant story with a human soul

“Maybe there is something out there…some new discovery that’ll make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit,” Evelyn tells her rebellious daughter at the end of a head-spinning, chaotic two hours of cinema that is as hard to specifically interpret as it is to vaguely dismiss. Directed by the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), Everything Everywhere All At Once will possibly sweep the Oscars, for its deliriously awkward craft, its ambitious outlay of ideas that at least on paper do not belong beside each other but foremost, for bewitching performances by its unfancied cast.

At the heart of the film is a migrant story, imbued with the reluctant morality of a mother — played by Michelle Yeoh — who is trying to live up to several socio-cultural reckonings at once. That, in essence, is the topical relevance of a film that argues, rather spiritedly, that we are never one thing, but many.

The grammar of chaos

Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, a sprightly yet strained mother who is dealing with a struggling laundromat, a gay daughter and a beta-male for a husband. Waymond, played by charm-of-the-awards-season Ke Huy Quan, is an atypically soft-spoken father who is possibly made up of more grit than he lets on. Things come to a head when a tax official auditing the laundromat owned by the Wangs refuses to accept irregularities.

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Here is where the fun, well and truly, begins. The Daniels don’t so much so take the narrative forward as much as they inject it with frenzy and freakishness. We jump between universes, each of them a genre-defying interpretation of the Wangs’ many maladies sieved as if through the grammar of blink-and-you-miss chaos.

Part-action flick, part-spy franchise

Sometimes action flick, sometimes a spy franchise, the Wangs, unlike the world they inhabit, animatedly fight for each other. The conceit is rather straightforward; that in relationships as atomic as a small migrant family trying to keep its head above water, there are many battles to be fought. Not all of them will be fist-fights, or anti-imperial marches. Some of them are quieter, more synonymous with the subdued yet dogged determination of the grandpa (played here by veteran James Hong) whose conservatism is born out of insecurity. But none of these fights, these challenges are easier than the other, for they require the same proverbial gut, as the grandiosity of dumb ambition.

Everything Everywhere All At Once
Michelle Yeoh is brilliant as the slightly pesky mother burdened with holding down far too many ends of a demanding life.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is really two films. One, where the Wangs, restricted by the tools of storytelling, amble through unremarkable lives, momentarily transformed by the cinema of sympathy. Or the second, where the modesty of their struggles doesn’t quite prevent them from becoming superheroes, at least to each other. It’s this second film that baffles, fascinates and at times even overwhelms, for the Daniels really indulge a comic book’s worth of quirks, all amounting to something feverish, magical, eccentric and even overdone. Incredibly, through all of the visual mayhem, the film retains its human soul, never getting lost in the scientific intrigue of the worlds it switches from and in between.

A magical journey

Michelle Yeoh is brilliant as the slightly pesky mother burdened with holding down far too many ends of a demanding life. She’s always been a fine actor, but here she is for a change, addressing her own immigrant roots rather than playing a stereotypical version of what most Americans think Asians do — kung fu, noodle soups and bad driving, among others. The Daniels use similar exfoliating tools but apply them with a deeper understanding of the culture. Here the martial arts aren’t sexy kernels of ‘Asianness’ but simply the method to achieving a controlled form of pushback. To Yeoh’s central role, Quan plays the perfect foil, assisting and disappearing when required.

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What Everything Everywhere All At Once stands for is fairly simple, but how it gets there is audacious, eccentric to say the least. There is a straight line here and then a Rorchasch’s test worth of splatter cutting across it at every other moment, distracting you fair bit from the spiritual core of the story. That core, quite incredibly, remains intact for the entirety of the film; something that studio executives at Marvel, its doomed CGI-sphere backed by trope-y masks and suits in tow, must reflect upon after sitting through this magical journey.

The cinema of imagination

The film, as utterly peculiar and dizzying as it is, is also an acquired taste. Not everyone might be charmed by the haywire visual theatrics of a narrative that resembles an episodic sitcom trying to say something ordinary. Families are built and kept together on empathy, more so when they must contend with forces from the outside. Not each contact is as illustrious as an inter-galactic squabble for territory but the soul of humanity is, ultimately, the impression of defiance, as opposed to its pitch, tenor or nature.

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That is where the cinema of imagination really beams in, throwing light, colour and magic on the unremarkable. Each one of us, in our own ways, fights the good fight. Some more lucid, some more visual or audible than others. Sprinkled uniformly on the soil bed of imagination, they, in essence, resemble each other. Which is why the multiverse is not the sight of us doing different things, but in fact doing the same thing, differently. The variety isn’t the point, as much as the uniformity of all that is misunderstood or uncommunicated. Your head might reel a bit after watching it, but your heart, as good cinema ought to leave it, will be full.

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