How does one attempt to describe Everything Everywhere All at Once?
What sounds like the setup to some grand cosmic joke becomes a legitimate and existential line of questioning about A24’s manic and metaphysically unmoored latest film — a Michelle Yeoh-starring sci-fi-action-comedy drama from filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
The simple answer is that Everything Everywhere All At Once is about Evelyn Wang (Yeoh), a perpetually exhausted laundromat owner who needs to finish her taxes. The slightly less simple answer is that the film is about all the Evelyns: the ones who need to complete their taxes, yes, but also the ones who finished their taxes weeks ago, the ones who never opened laundromats to begin with, and the ones who — say, for example — have hot dogs for fingers.
That last hypothetical leads to a far less simple answer: Everything Everywhere All At Once is about infinite Evelyns in infinite universes, all experienced by one Evelyn in particular as she ricochets between realities en route to (maybe) saving every last one of them from a mysterious multiversal threat.
It’s also about her long-suffering relationships with a husband (Ke Huy Quan) she doesn’t appreciate, a father (James Hong) she can’t please, and a daughter (Stephanie Hsu) she won’t treat kindly. These relationships vary drastically from one universe to the next, as Evelyn discovers when a seemingly mundane visit to her tax auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) fractures her reality and sling-shots her toward a state of greatly expanded consciousness.
The less said about the specifics of Evelyn’s mission in the multiverse, the better, especially because Kwan and Scheinert aren’t interested in anything so trivial as world-building, nor anything as straightforward as nine-point, three-act plot progression. What they’re after is far more pinballing, peculiar, and surprisingly poignant.
This shouldn’t be a total surprise coming from the same writing-directing duo that previously cast Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man. That film sneak-attacked those chortling at its hard-wired absurdity with a painfully earnest story about human connection, dysfunction, and the quest for self-knowledge.
“You have to see it to believe it.”
Daniels’ work outside of feature filmmaking has been similarly bizarre and bizarrely affecting, from a short film in which a red ball bounced through the weird lives of Angelenos (Interesting Ball) to a music video that sent a pelvis-thrusting pied piper crashing through an entire apartment block (“Turn Down for What,” for Lil Jon and DJ Snake). A more interactive film, “Possibilia,” allowed participants to take an active role in a young couple’s romantic quarrel, choosing how any given scene plays out in 16 parallel universes (which led to a massive number of different possible viewings).
As ridiculous and reality-warping as these past projects were and as much as one can detect traces of their formative films in this latest one, nothing Daniels has done can rival Everything Everywhere All At Once in terms of mind-boggling, googly-eyed ambition.
Primarily, the new film delights as an experiential extravaganza, using a barrage of formal devices (split-screens, aspect-ratio shifts, blurry editing flourishes) and a bravura balancing act of a script that confidently careens its scenes into one another. This is the kind of in-your-face, kitchen-sink kung-fu epic that turns butt plugs into objects of vast interdimensional importance, treats an “everything” bagel as a nexus of ever-expanding nothingness, and sustains a delirious Ratatouille riff with the help of Harry Shum, Jr. and an animatronic raccoon voiced by Randy Newman.
You have to see it to believe it, in other words. But even then, the film serves up its eccentricities generously and at such a frantic, accelerating pace that repeat viewings will be necessary to catch (let alone comprehend) the extent of what madness inhabits its many strange worlds.
Everything Everywhere All At Once depends on screen icon Yeoh to play both a wandering hero and the film’s gravitational center. Obviously, she’s up for the challenge. Even if the role of Evelyn hadn’t been written for this living legend (the filmmakers claim their lead was literally named Michelle Yeoh in early drafts), she would have imbued it with the same raw star power that’s propelled her through an array of professional peaks (ballerina, beauty queen, martial artist, acclaimed actress) across a 40-year career.
But knowing Everything Everywhere All At Once had long been envisioned as a Yeoh vehicle suggests one line of reasoning behind its multiversal maneuvering. The story has overarching similarities to Jet Li’s The One — directed by Cory Yuen, who gave Yeoh her first lead role in Yes, Madam! It includes a universe in which Evelyn became a martial arts-trained actress — that is to say, she became Yeoh — and lingers in the melancholy of unrealized romance, Wong Kar Wai-style. (Stock footage of Yeoh on the Crazy Rich Asians red carpet even appears in the film, while other universes pay homage to her most enduring works.)
“...a centrifugal force of pure imagination.”
Beyond honoring her illustrious career, Everything Everywhere All At Once gifts Yeoh with a new kind of character to play, one less composed and controlled than the fighting aces she’s been known as previously. Though she increasingly wonders about the other paths her life could have taken, Evelyn is rooted in the everyday cycles of life at the laundromat. She handles her family life with an indifference and casual cruelty that has caused it to deteriorate, and part of the film’s central tension becomes a question of whether she truly sees this. It’s a marvelous performance, aching and indomitable, even before the multiverse breaks open.
Once it does, of course, Yeoh’s work grows many times more impressive. She soars through hard-hitting action sequences while displaying a real knack for the physical comedy that stems from a middle-aged business owner suddenly taking on two adversaries powered by trophies rammed up their rear ends. (It’s a long story.) Even those who mainly recognize Yeoh from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon know that she’s a martial-arts master. The genius of her work in this film is that she sublimates all those decades of acrobatic excellence to sell the spectacle of Evelyn’s own disbelief at the powerhouse moves she’s suddenly capable of.
Yeoh is the star of Everything Everywhere All At Once’s most over-the-top melees, but the ultra-charismatic Quan — formerly a child actor best known for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies — will have as many people buzzing about an uproarious early sequence in which he faces off against security guards using only a fanny pack. Notable here is the involvement of action choreographers Andy and Brian Le, whose playful, bar-raising work as the Martial Club is steeped in appreciation for Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest kung-fu films. (They’re the guys who snuck a full twist sidekick into Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, also with Yeoh.)
At 139 minutes, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a whole lot of movie and perhaps too densely packed for its own good. All Daniels’ non-stop, nonsensical excess has the ultimate effect of softening the film’s dramatic stakes, which are personal in ways that sometimes feel small (as is often the case when you’re being measured against the multiverse). And the film over-compensates by steering hard into a saccharine third act that doesn’t quite crash the preceding acts’ sugar high but comes awfully close.
Given this, the film’s final stretch is its rockiest. If it weren’t for the resounding nuttiness of their images, the ending would stick Daniels perilously close to the same numbing finale overkill that afflicts just about every other blockbuster to explore multiverse mechanics in recent years. But it also speaks to Daniels’ control of their whiplash-inducing tone — and the remarkable dexterity of their actors — that they’re just about able to land the plane they’ve sent hurtling through dozens of interdimensional portals.
It helps that Daniels’ latest doesn’t aim to map out the multiverse so much as spin and pin you to its walls, Gravitron-style, with the centrifugal force of their hyperactively outré imaginations. Ambitiously dizzying and dizzyingly ambitious, Everything Everywhere All At Once reaches toward the totality promised by its title. It’s no spoiler to say the film doesn’t quite get there. Still, its intricately arranged jumble of genres — family drama, martial-arts comedy, metaphysical head-trip, surrealist self-satire — funnels endless influences into what feels like the rarest of things in the current entertainment landscape: a legitimately and miraculously original vision.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is now playing in select theaters, expanding wide on April 8.