Well, that was a lot. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering the title. That being said, it seems odd to critique a film for having too much going on when that’s kind of the point, but I’m gonna do it anyway. There’s a lot of fun, entertaining, and even emotionally resonant stuff going on, but there’s also too much going on to allow the kind of focus on any one thing to have the kind of impact this could have had. Is it about mothers and daughters? Finding connection in the world? Finding meaning through other people? It’s all of these things, but emotional resonance happens when attaching these ideas to characters and their stories in a specific way to actually let the ideas flow through them while giving us the emotional connection to the characters going through it, adding intellectual depth to something that pulls at the heart strings. Having roughly five different variations on the same idea compete for attention undermines them all.
Okay, enough complaining for now, because while I do think the film needed a good bit of cutting down, there’s so much to enjoy.
Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is the co-owner of a little laundry in Los Angeles with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). They have one daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who has a girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel), a situation that they are trying to hide from Evelyn’s father, Gong Gong (James Hong), visiting from Hong Kong. Evelyn’s life is a mess. The laundry is failing and in massive tax problems. She has this propensity of picking up new hobbies and then filing the expenses as tax deductions. The strain of the whole situation has led Waymond to gathering the paperwork for a divorce that she’s too busy to even notice. There are regrets that she has made the wrong choices in life to lead her to that moment.
They have an appointment with Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), a tax auditor at the IRS building, but as they go up the elevator, Waymond suddenly removes his glasses, starts speaking differently and with more confidence, while scribbling out random instructions for her to follow (including putting her shoes on the wrong feet). Sitting there with the auditor figuring out the sad, pathetic story of their lives through their receipts, Evelyn figures that there’s nothing to lose, so she tries it, and she’s suddenly in something much, much larger than a tax audit of her laundry. Alpha Waymond, the form of her husband from an alternate universe, has reached out to her because she is the one version of Evelyn that will become powerful enough to defeat Jobu Tupaki, an incredibly powerful being that has been moving from universe to universe killing Evelyn’s all along the way.
The painting of the portrait of Evelyn’s life is wonderfully (and perhaps overly) detailed, providing us with a very clear picture of the miserable little life she leads. It becomes ironically funny when we find out that she is literally the most pathetic form of herself across the entire multiverse, failing at literally everything, which, in handwaving logic, means that she has the capacity to become the greatest version of Evelyn to face off against Jobu. Her discovery of the multiverse is both fun and frustrating. Fun because the rules established are so consciously absurd (doing something completely random and out of character slingshots your consciousness in the right direction of another version of yourself that you then tap into in order to gain some kind of skill that you don’t already have like, say, the mastery of kung fu), but frustrating because there is a lot to explain. It’s not just the rules, but also the central conflict which gets treated opaquely for a while until the movie just gives up and lets you know a couple of moments later.
Jobu Tupaki is another version of Joy from the Alpha universe where Evelyn was one of the great scientists and discovered how to communicate with other universes. She pushed Joy to the breaking point where she became able to jump between universes without the aid of technology like everyone else, and there’s been a race to find the right Evelyn ever since. What Joy actually wants with Evelyn is never as clear as it should be, I think. What she wants overall, though, is just the logical application of nihilism: she wants to commit suicide. This gets manifested in another of the movie’s intentional oddities, a cosmic everything bagel that will consume Jobu and erase her existence.
The second half of the film is Evelyn slowly growing in power and also becoming more like Jobu herself. There are a lot of fights as Alpha Waymond works with Evelyn to try and keep her safe. She ends up at war with herself, mostly manifested with her desire to lose herself in a reality where she is a big movie star, but it also happens to be a reality where she never left Hong Kong with Waymond. So much time is spent on this that one would imagine that this is the central conceit of the film, but the antagonist is a version of Joy. So, this is about her connecting with her family, right? I could buy that, but then there’s Deirdre. A surprising amount of time in the lead up to the finale is about connecting with Deirdre, mostly in a universe where people have hot dog fingers (an idea alternatively funny and really gross) and connecting with her. So, it’s about relationships being what’s really worthwhile? That makes sense, but this is where we’re getting really diffuse. Oh, and then there’s the Ratatouille parody called Raccacoonie where Evelyn works in a hibachi grill with a great chef who’s hiding a Raccoon under his toque. I mean, it’s funny, but it just goes to show how overstuffed this film is.
Why does that matter if it’s funny? That it’s funny is what saves it from being a drag at all, and it’s obvious that most audiences feel like that’s enough. I just get frustrated when there’s obviously a point and the film can’t get to it. In fact, it throws everything out of focus when there is a point and the film intentionally obfuscates it. Does that make it a bad film? Not at all. The movie is so filled with attempts to entertain and an eagerness to as well, that I can only hold this narrative frustration against the film so much. Still, it’s there.
So, I’ve complained enough. I really do like this film. It may be overlong and overstuffed, but it’s fun from beginning to end. Its colorful, light, and energetic approach to its concept overcomes a lot, especially when combined with the quality action choreography. Both Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan’s talents are on full display as they fight their way all around the large IRS building set. Quan’s early fight with nothing but his fanny pack is a real highlight. It should also be noted that virtually the entirety of the film (I’d estimate about 90%) takes place on two sets (the laundry and the IRS building), while never feeling constrained. Finding new places to film within the sets while messing with lighting help really give the small-budgeted film a much larger sense of scale than expected.
Yeoh carries the entire film on her back, and she is the film’s foundation. She gives Evelyn in every reality a sense of life from her lived-in exhaustion early through to her bewilderment at discovering the larger universe around her to even her take as herself at a film screening, she’s imbues the whole film with emotional truth. Quan reveals himself to be far more than Short Round or Data several decades later, easily alternating between versions of Waymond, one weak and wounded the other eager, smart, and proactive. Hsu as Joy is solid, and it’s always a joy to see James Hong, especially while decked out in a mech-suit made from office equipment.
It’s really not hard to see why Daniel Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s creation captured the imaginations of so many people. It is Joseph Campbell’s basic hero journey given a crazy, unique skin. At its core, it tells the kind of hero myth we’ve been telling each other for millennia told well, with energy, and uniquely. That it’s overlong and overstuffed doesn’t seem to bother most people. It just bothers me a little bit is all.