As we prepare for the 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Backstage is breaking down this year’s film and television ensemble nominees for your consideration.
Main Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, Stephanie Hsu, Tallie Medel, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh
Casting by: Sarah Finn
Directed by: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Written by: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Distributed by: A24
It’s only natural that the concept of the multiverse has hit the mainstream. After all, we’re living in an age defined by a freedom of choice that makes us wonder how many potential directions our lives could go in at any given moment. It’s a topic that pop culture has frequently addressed, but rarely with the emotional insight and inventiveness of A24’s hit action-comedy-drama “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Swiss Army Man”). But pulling off such a complex story requires an excellent cast of actors who are prepared to fully commit to their roles.
The film stars screen legend Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, a disillusioned California laundromat owner whose life has begun to stagnate: Her relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is deteriorating, and her mild-mannered husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is serving her with divorce papers. Meanwhile, an impending audit spells doom for her business. But everything changes when Waymond’s personality suddenly transforms before Evelyn’s eyes; claiming to be a version of himself from an alternate reality, he warns his wife of an unfolding interdimensional struggle.
What follows is a dizzying film that blends genres ranging from martial arts–infused action to absurdist comedy to family drama, all evoked with imaginative visual flourishes. But as comically bizarre and complex as the plot becomes, the central conflict boils down to Evelyn’s struggle to connect with Joy and reach her true potential. Rounding out the main cast are Jamie Lee Curtis as an eccentric IRS agent and James Hong as Evelyn’s stern, old-fashioned father, Gong Gong.
Credit: Allyson Riggs
What makes these performances especially impressive is that the film calls for each actor to portray multiple incarnations of their characters, varying in intentions and physical appearance across the multiverse. The Evelyn we meet at the start of the movie is all harried exasperation in the face of her foundering life and failing marriage; then, Yeoh pivots to disbelieving comedy as her character rejects the absurdity of the story’s call to adventure. As the film progresses, the actor plays versions of Evelyn that include the kind of action hero she built her career on and the glamorous international celebrity she’s become. But it’s her skilled dramatic performance as the flawed, strong-willed protagonist we first meet that ties the whole thing together.
The meek Waymond undergoes his own transformations into both a heroic leading man and a suave, tuxedoed movie star in a neon-soaked world that nods to the work of legendary filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. All the while, Quan never loses sight of his character’s essential decency. In one pivotal scene, Waymond implores his wife to be kind, claiming that he fights with empathy instead of weapons. The sentiment applies equally to every version of his character.
As Joy, Hsu runs the gamut from shy adolescent to flamboyant egomaniac—two different sides of the same young woman yearning for parental acceptance and understanding. In one scene, Joy grapples with her fear of coming out to her conservative grandfather, unsure whether or not Evelyn will support her. Hsu’s performance in this sequence would carry any realistic family drama, let alone an experimental action thriller whose outcome could have reality-ending consequences.
Curtis offers a memorably offbeat turn as dowdy, sour auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdre, embracing an unusual fashion sense and a total lack of vanity. But even this initially antagonistic character reveals unexpected depths, appearing in another reality as a devoted romantic partner. Thanks to Curtis’ performance, Deirdre ultimately wins our sympathy in the story’s central universe.
Instead of relying on familiar tropes when it comes to both villainous intentions and universal themes of acceptance and love, the film fully embraces its strange concept with appropriate daring; and the stacked cast more than pulls their weight in bringing this tonally ambitious roller-coaster ride to life.
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