‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is the Oscars juggernaut



Let it be said for the record: The movie with 11 Academy Award nominations — the odds-on best picture front-runner that has steamrolled through awards season — features a sex toy that’s a portal to another dimension. And a raccoon that sits on a chef’s head to make him a virtuoso. And a fanny pack as a lethal weapon.

Just five years ago, the idea of a kung fu multiverse action comedy about Asian American laundromat owners co-directed by an interracial duo dubbed the Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) being an Oscar favorite would have sounded like something from an alternate reality. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is in many ways the exact opposite of the standard prestige Oscar bait that preceded it — biopics, austere dramas, 2018′s “Green Book.” (How did that happen?)

So how in the world did this insane, perverse, delightful film get in pole position to win the biggest prize in American cinema?

Director Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” won at the 2017 Oscars, puts it succinctly: “It’s a dope film,” he says. “You watch it and it’s just so clearly dope.”

“The movie is so special and singular that I almost don’t want to say that this is an Asian American film that will benefit Asian Americans,” says Randall Park, the star of “Fresh Off the Boat,” who just directed his first feature, about a Japanese American film snob. “It’s just a great movie, and I can’t wait to see that cast on that red carpet, getting their names called out and possibly winning.”

The “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Michelle Yeoh is poised to become the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best actress. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

And part of EEAAO’s success is just that: Wanting to see this group of people get their due. It stars the incredible Michelle Yeoh, who, at 60, has never received this kind of mainstream acclaim in her career, and Ke Huy Quan, 51, who was a beloved child actor with roles in “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” but quit acting for 20 years because he couldn’t find roles. Their nominations, alongside EEAAO’s Stephanie Hsu (who plays their daughter) and Hong Chau for her role in “The Whale,” have set a record for the most actors of Asian descent to get Oscar nods in a single year. If Yeoh wins, she’ll be the first Asian woman to take home the lead actress trophy; she’s also only the second ever to be nominated, following Merle Oberon, who passed for White in 1935. If both Yeoh and Quan take home trophies, it will be the first time two Asian actors have won in the same year. (Just four have won since the first Oscars ceremony in 1929.)

“I’m gonna say I don’t know why it took so long,” Jenkins told The Post at the Independent Spirit Awards the weekend before the Oscars. “Usually, I say to people, ‘Why are you asking me to talk about diversity? Talk about the people in power who have restricted diversity and kept people like myself or Ke [Huy Quan] or Stephanie [Hsu] from breaking through,’” Jenkins said.

When his coming-of-age film about a young gay Black man struggling with his sexuality won best picture in 2017, it was seen as a watershed moment for diversity in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. That same year the Academy made a giant push to diversify membership, admitting a new class that was 46 percent women and 41 percent people of color. But progress is ongoing. “My frame is not so much about when White people choose which minoritized group each year is their favorite,” says Nikyatu Jusu, director of last year’s Sundance-winning horror film, “Nanny,” about a Senegalese caretaker for a White family. “I think that we need to think about sustained change, as opposed to focusing on who’s let in.”

It’s not just welcome on-screen representation that has propelled EEAAO to phenomenon status, though. In many ways, it feels like the one movie in step with the collective mood post-covid. For several years, the world got weirder, we got darker, and we’re all trying to find our way back from that.

“If you look at lockdown, we were isolated and lonely. We were longing for connection. We were cynical, we were nihilistic. This film was all about that stuff and redirecting our nihilism to be a weapon for good and for hope,” says EEAAO’s editor, Paul Rogers. Says director Scheinert: “We just went through a collective trauma on planet Earth right before the movie’s release, and this movie makes some folks feel seen and less alone, but it also lets them laugh about it.” Getting to watch Yeoh and Quan destroy bad guys after a year in which Asian Americans were subject to inordinate amounts of violence and hate also offered some gratification.

Jenkins saw the movie on its opening weekend in April 2022 and immediately wrote a 15-tweet thread about just how awesome he thought it was and how much money he thought it would make.

It was just the second movie he’d seen in a theater since the pandemic started, and the joy in that packed house on a Sunday in Pasadena was palpable. “If the movie I saw in that theater didn’t yield these kinds of results, critically, commercially, and now in an awards context — that would say some very bad things about the world,” he says.

Twenty-three years ago, another groundbreaking, box-office-smashing martial arts action film starring Yeoh was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the most for any non-English-language movie at the time. But none of the actors in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were recognized for their work. “I thought at least three of them should get nominated, but no one made a fuss,” says Ang Lee, the Taiwanese American filmmaker who got his first best director Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger” and later won Oscars for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 2012’s “Life of Pi”making him the first non-White person to get that award.

Lee had cast Yeoh, who’s Malaysian, because he was a fan of the Hong Kong action films that had made her an international star before she came to Hollywood. “I just had a feeling she would be really good because your heart raced to her when you see her,” Lee says. “She seemed like she had a lot of emotion repressed inside, waiting to be discovered.”

The EEAAO stars have talked about the discrimination they faced coming up in the industry. James Hong, 94, who plays the grandfather, was working at a time when Asian parts went to White actors in “yellowface” with their eyes taped so they slanted upward. The crew on the set called him “Chinaman.” During the pandemic, after Quan filmed EEAAO but before it came out, he lost his Screen Actors Guild health insurance because he wasn’t cast in any roles. Yeoh has said American casting agents seemed shocked that she spoke English, even though most people in Malaysia speak four or five languages. “Oh, she speaks great English. But her Mandarin accent was a big problem for me,” says Lee, laughing.

When Lee’s cast didn’t get nominated, he figured Academy members just didn’t know who the actors were. He, too, had been snubbed five years earlier, when his first English-language movie, 1995′s “Sense and Sensibility,” got seven nominations, but he failed to get a best director nod. He shrugged it off at the time. “The Academy Award is American, and it’s establishment,” he said. “It had language restrictions. And you really do need popularity. It’s a social activity and not about the real value of a movie, which is what it does to the human heart.”

In 2008, though, the same thing that happened with “Crouching Tiger” happened to “Slumdog Millionaire” — 10 nominations, eight wins and none for the actors. It happened again in 2019 with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” The Korean-language film got six nominations. Its best picture win was seen as a boon for diversity and international perspective at the Academy. But the lack of nominations for the actors created an outcry over Asian achievements being recognized but not Asian faces. Is EEAAO a sea change? “I just hope that this becomes the norm, what is it, 23 years later?” says Lee. “I’m honored to be part of that progress.”

For all its insanity and multiple universes, at its heart, EEAAO is an immigrant story. Both Kwan and producer Jonathan Wang added bits of their parents to the script. Wang’s Taiwanese father, who died in 2016, had an incredible knack for butchering movie names — which is how we have Raccaccoonie, the master-chef raccoon who’s a spin on “Ratatouille.” Kwan interviewed his mother, June, while writing the screenplay. She was opening several vegan Chinese restaurants in New York at the time, while also being a grandmother and dealing with health issues in the family — demonstrating an ability to be, well, everything everywhere all at once, a trait that’s baked into Yeoh’s character.

“The more I dug in, the more I realized how perfect the immigrant story was for a multiverse premise,” says Kwan. “The multiverse story and the immigrant experience have to deal with the question of ‘what if.’ They both involve straddling or inhabiting different spaces and ‘universes’ at the same time.”

That doesn’t always translate, though. Kwan’s mother, June, is baffled by the film’s success. “I love that June’s honest. She’s like, ‘I don’t get it. What’s so good about it?’” says Wang. “But she’s really, earnestly trying to understand the movie more, and that’s beautiful.” All three of their mothers, though, will proudly accompany them to the Oscars.

Lee, too, isn’t fully onboard. “To be honest, it was a little fast for me. I’m getting old,” he says, laughing. “I get it and I’m happy for them and for Asian Americans. But emotionally, I’m a little behind in the movie’s pace. All the things in it jam together like in a laundry machine.”

Joel Kim Booster, the Korean American who wrote, directed and starred in the gay rom-com “Fire Island,” says he doesn’t have any Asian friends who’ve said they don’t like EEAAO, but he’s not sure “that’s a real thing.” They just might be staying quiet, he posits, for the same reason gay people might have stayed quiet about not liking “Fire Island.”

“It’s the scarcity of representation in this industry,” Kim Booster says. “We are told that if we do not support this movie, then we will not get another one.” A big reason he wrote “Fire Island,” he says, is because he was tired of always going up for the same parts as his good friend, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang, but never getting to be in the same production with him. “It was so frustrating because we’re so different. Why can’t we be on screen together and as friends?” says Kim Booster. “I think the thing that’s changed a lot is the solidarity among our community within the industry. For a long time, we were pitted against each other because there was only one role available for all of us, and they were often bad [roles], and I think we really came together and decided to tell our own stories.”

At the Spirit Awards, the freewheeling indie film antidote to the Oscars, EEAAO ran the table, just as it had swept the major guild prizes — Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, Producers Guild of America and SAG. The EEAAO gang treated the press room like a carnival photo booth, doing high kicks with their Spirit Awards. Jamie Lee Curtis at one point wore the hot dog fingers that feature so prominently in the movie and stroked Michelle Yeoh’s face.

Suddenly, Jamie Lee Curtis is everything everywhere all at once

Curtis says EEAAO’s awards run has had her thinking hard about what the movie means for all immigrants, which is why she brought up her family’s history during her SAG Awards speech for winning best supporting actress. Her grandparents were working-class immigrants from Hungary and Denmark whose children, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, became huge movie stars. “In the movie, my role was to be the antagonist to those immigrants and their dream. And to question them was an important role,” she says. “But I’m very moved by the importance of this emotional story of these immigrants. And if we win, it will be a win for them. I will be there, of course, cheering, but all my energy and my emotion will be toward my bae, Michelle, and to the Daniels.”

If EEAAO wins acting awards, that will make history. But there are other kinds of progress, too. For Park, what’s revolutionary about the movie isn’t the multiverse but seeing a family argument in a parking lot, or Yeoh and Quan doing their taxes. “I kept thinking about how you rarely get to see Asian Americans in the context of the mundane, just doing everyday things,” he says. “With Asian Americans, there’s this expectation to tell our story a certain kind of way, and I think the Daniels did it in such a unique and inventive way that it’s going to inspire people to tell their stories, too.”

And for Jenkins, this movie is a huge win for weirdos — and thereby, cinema.

“I mean, there’s a scene where Michelle Yeoh is fighting someone with a dildo,” says Jenkins. “Literally, it happens in this movie. That means that when some random-ass kid sends out a random-ass script with just wild s— in it, someone like Jamie Lee Curtis is going to listen when it hits her desk. If there’s anything that this film has opened up, that’s it.”


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