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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ and, amazingly, even more…

Alternate universes, an IRS office, hot dog fingers, and tons of fun. Plus: Israel, Palestine and "Ahed's Knee"; French "Gagarine."

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Michelle Yeoh in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Despite its titular promise, Everything Everywhere All at Once initially seems focused on a very specific, familiar, and timely situation: getting your taxes done.

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is sitting in the cramped apartment above the laundromat that she and her husband own, gathering her paperwork in preparation for a visit to the IRS offices. She’s understandably stressed out, and not just about the audit. The final preparations for her elderly father’s impending visit for a Chinese New Year’s party need to be made, and neither her resentful grown daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) or her ineffectual husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) has been much help. It’s a good thing she doesn’t yet know that Waymond is about to serve her with divorce papers and that Joy wants to bring her girlfriend Becky to the party to meet grandpa.

What happens once she arrives at the cubicle of the harried revenue agent (a hilariously haggard Jamie Lee Curtis), however, is, to say the least, a little more unusual. Out of nowhere, Waymond takes on a much more capable mien, privately informing Evelyn that she’s the key figure in a multiversal battle that threatens to destroy reality. Well, he doesn’t say it quite so plainly at first. But it turns out that he’s right.

How to put this? There is a way that each of us can reach out across the infinite versions of ourselves in order to retrieve a particular skill that version possesses, but in order to do so one must perform a random, bizarre action such as eating chapstick or photocopying one’s exposed buttocks. Thus triggered, an assortment of superpowers can be temporarily granted.

And that’s how Evelyn ends up taking on Curtis’s IRS agent, an endless array of security guards, in a wide-ranging battle that trashes the enormous, cubicle-filled office floor and segues into a breathless, universe-hopping quest to uncover the identity of the nihilistic force that is bent on destroying our heroine. The identity of that force causes Evelyn to rethink the way she has been living her life and what her true purpose might be.

Believe it or not, this all makes sense. Or at least, it’s a shining example of the way that even the most cartoonish, surreal events can ring true as long as they’re depicted with a consistent internal logic. Along the way, it’s a ton of fun, as many of the alternate realities reference other movies (Ratatouille, In the Mood for Love, Yeoh’s own work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and allow directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively The Daniels) free rein with their lunatic imaginations and unforgettable visual effects. (The universe where everyone has hot dogs for fingers is an instant classic.)

This is the second feature from The Daniels, following the Sundance hit Swiss Army Man, which starred Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent but multi-functional corpse who becomes Paul Dano’s best friend. (They also made the short film Interesting Ball, which I will never not link to when given a chance.) Their signature style combines a juvenile fascination with bodily functions and the malleability of flesh with a tenderness that could easily come off as a cheap trick, but never does.

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From spinning dryers to cosmic bagels, there are themes of circularity and return at play here, as well as an effective evocation of the overwhelming swirl of information, responsibility, and anxiety that we’ve all become too familiar with in recent years. Everything might be the busiest, most sensorially exhausting story ever told, with the moral that we really all ought to slow down a bit. (In fact, my only real gripe is that the film feels the need to ratchet up its third-act intensity one or two more times than it really needs to.)

On top of all that, it’s a splendid showcase for Yeoh, who gives a vanity-free performance while also demonstrating that she can still handle her action scenes in a way her one-time costar Jackie Chan would certainly approve. The dimension-hopping story gives her a chance to play the graceful martial artist, the untouchable glamor icon, and the imperious mother, but also to let loose with silliness in a way I’ve never seen from her. (Remember that hot-dog-finger universe?)

Nevertheless, the supporting cast nearly steals the show. Curtis, as mentioned, seems to be having a blast as essentially the opposite of the scream queens and sexpots she’s tackled in the past. Quan, probably best known for playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a child, is convincing both as the normal, reserved Waymond and his tough, all-business alternate-dimension counterpart. And Hsu, who had a recurring role on the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a revelation in what might be the toughest role in the movie.

It’ll be interesting to see if Everything can find some traction at the box office. It’s got goofy humor, crazy special effects, one of the stars of Crazy Rich Asians, and an attention-getting marketing campaign. It also has genuine originality and humanity. Here’s hoping those last two don’t sink its chances. (Everything Everywhere All at Once is at Cinema 21, Hollywood, Laurelhurst, and several Regal, Century, and AMC theaters.)

ALSO CURRENTLY PLAYING:

A scene from “Ahed’s Knee.”

Ahed’s Knee: The Ahed of the title is Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian teenager who became a cause celebré after being sentenced in 2018 to eight months in prison for slapping an Israeli soldier. In the new film from Israeli director Nadav Lapid, a middle-aged filmmaker called Y (Avshalom Pollak) is in the middle of preparing a project about Ahed when he travels to a small desert town for a screening of one of his films. There, he meets the younger, charming government librarian (Nur Fibak) who organized the event, all the while wrestling with troubling news from his mother. Incorporating occasional musical numbers, a scathing rebuke of Israel, and a fair amount of self-loathing, this semi-autobiographical screed lashes out at politicians, hypocrites, and the director himself with unflinching ferocity. (Living Room Theaters)

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Alseni Bathily in “Gagarine.”

Gagarine: Another import taking its title from real life, this engaging, sometimes magical drama is set in an enormous housing project in the Parisian suburbs that was built by a local communist government in the 1960s and named after Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut who was the first man in space and who is shown, in archival footage, visiting his namesake development. Today, though, Gagarin Towers is, like so many similar architectural behemoths, in disrepair bordering on ruin. To 16-year-old Youri (Alseni Bathily), born in the place and named after its inspiration, it’s the only home he’s ever known, and with the help of friends and neighbors (nearly all immigrants and/or minorities), he labors to keep the place fixed-up enough to please the building inspectors who are looking for an excuse to tear it down. When his efforts inevitably fall short, and demolition looms, he attempts to find solace in his dreams of a space-age future. Adding poignancy, the film was shot in the actual Gagarine Towers just weeks before its scheduled destruction. (Living Room Theaters)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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