Multiverses are so hot right now. And why shouldn’t they be? At a time when people can’t even look at their phones without being confronted by a seemingly infinite number of competing realities — a time which everything seems close enough to touch, but almost nothing feels possible to change, and even the happiest people you know are haunted by the endless possibilities of who else they might have been — telling a story that only takes place on a single plane of existence might as well be an act of denial.
That isn’t a problem for the filmmaking duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (better known as Daniels), who once created an interactive six-minute short that could be played in 3,618,502,788,666,131,106,986,593,281,521,497,120,414,687,020,801,267,626, 233,049,500,247,285,301,248 different ways. These guys aren’t just uniquely prepared to meet the present moment, they’ve been waiting for it to catch up with them for a long time. So it’s not much of a surprise that the project they’ve been working on since 2016’s “Swiss Army Man” sees the crisis of living with “Everything Everywhere All at Once” more clearly than any other movie like it.
Not that there are any other movies like it. Here is an orgiastic work of slaphappy genius that doesn’t operate like a narrative film so much as a particle accelerator — or maybe a cosmic washing machine — that two psychotic 12-year-olds designed in the hopes of reconciling the anxiety of what our lives could be with the beauty of what they are. It’s a machine powered by the greatest performance that Michelle Yeoh has ever given, pumped full of the zaniest martial arts battles that Stephen Chow has never shot, and soaked through with the kind of “anything goes” spirit that’s only supposed to be on TV these days.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is as overstuffed as its title implies, even more juvenile than its pedigree suggests, and so creatively unbound from the minute it starts that it makes Daniels’ previous efforts seem like they were made with Bressonian restraint by comparison (for context, their last feature was a sweet fable starring Harry Potter as an explosively farting corpse). It’s a movie that I saw twice just to make sure I hadn’t completely hallucinated it the first time around, and one that I will soon be seeing a third time for the same reason. I don’t ever expect to understand how it was (or got) made, but I already know that it works. And I know that it works because my impulse to pick on its imperfections and wonder how it might’ve been different eventually forfeits to the utter miracle of its existence.
It’s a movie… about a flustered Chinese-American woman trying to finish her taxes. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) is being audited — first by the IRS, and then by the other great evils of our multiverse. She and her stubbornly guileless husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, a sublime revelation in one of his first major roles since the days of Short Round) immigrated to California in pursuit of happiness after Evelyn’s overbearing father, Gong Gong (James Hong, 93 years old and yet still in his prime) forbid the marriage, but their dreams of a brighter future were soon quashed by the realities of running a small business and raising a child of their own.
The spectrum of women who Evelyn imagined she might become grew smaller every day, the possibilities burning away like joss paper until the proprietress of a failing laundromat was the only person left in the ashes. Now Evelyn’s life consists of wincing her way through racist micro-aggressions at work and beyond, peeling off the googly eyes that Waymond sticks everywhere to make objects seem happier, and acting as narrow-minded towards her lesbian daughter Joy (an inter-dimensionally great Stephanie Hsu in what should be a star-making performance) as her own father was towards her. Every parent wants what’s best for their children, but even the ones who should know better can delude themselves into thinking they know what that is. The more faith you have in someone’s potential, the harder it can be to recognize how they’re achieving it.
Maybe it would help if Evelyn could see history repeating itself — if she could remember the look that fell across her dad’s face when the doctor told him: “I’m sorry, it’s a girl.” Luckily for Evelyn, the entire space-time continuum will avail itself to her by the end of the Chinese New Year party she’s throwing as part of Gong Gong’s latest visit. And she might not even have to wait that long, as an emergency meeting with demonic IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra is interrupted by an even more urgent plea for Evelyn to save the entire multiverse from annihilation.
The hows and whys of what happens next are best left for audiences to discover first-hand, but it might help to imagine if “The Matrix” had been directed by people who grew up watching “The Matrix” — more specifically, by people who grew up watching “The Matrix,” spent their twenties pushing the visual boundaries of viral videos in much the same way as the Wachowskis broke new ground for Hollywood blockbusters, and then spent all of the cache they’d accrued on a disorientingly sweet movie about a corpse that farts so hard it can function as a jet ski. That’s what we’re dealing with here.
Evelyn soon finds herself pin-balling between “alternate life paths” in much the same way as Neo was slingshotted between the real world and a simulation. Or are they pin-balling into her? A version of Waymond acts as her Morpheus (few characters have ever been saddled with this much exposition, and even fewer have done as much with it), while bystanders like Deirdre are conscripted into a war between a parallel universe and a dimension-hopping demigod. A crucial difference soon emerges: Evelyn isn’t the One, she’s the Zero. In an infinite sea of possible Evelyns, she is the ultimate sum of unrealized potential and missed opportunities. No other version of herself has settled for less, or found so little joy in the people she loves — her daughter most of all.
Evelyn is an empty vessel, and that makes it uniquely easy for her to contain other iterations of herself. One of them is a Peking opera singer. One of them is a piñata. One of them became a Hong Kong action star after denying Waymond’s marriage proposal, and now yearns for the man who got away in a rainswept alley that’s soaked with “In the Mood for Love” ambiance and shot with flashes of Wong Kar-Wai’s signature step-printing technique (Yeoh channels Maggie Cheung, and Quan makes for a dashing Tony Leung stand-in).
This flourish, fleshed out with footage from Yeoh’s “Crazy Rich Asians” press tour, is par for the course in a movie that invites its most famous cast members to span the entire spectrum of their screen personas, as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” refracts them through the afterimage of their careers with a prismatic dynamism that mirrors the multiverse itself (“Millennium Actress” fans will find this to be one of several different elements that lend Daniels’ film the elastic essence of a live-action anime). Deirdre is a literally multi-dimensional role played by Jamie Lee Curtis — not someone I would’ve expected to star in one of the great fight scenes of the 21st century, but our universe is weird like that. Her character is often tough, sometimes tender, and always greater than the sum of her parts because of how fearlessly Curtis layers them on top of each other.
Of course, it’s Yeoh’s monumental performance that holds the multiverse together, as she skips from slapstick cluelessness to staggering omniscience as fluidly as Evelyn moves between worlds. One moment she’s trying to focus on her taxes, the next she’s looking for love in a universe where a quirk of evolution has, um, changed the laws of intimacy in a very ridiculous way. (As you might recall from the farting corpse movie, Daniels tend to use playground humor as a Trojan horse to more directly interrogate the nature of our existence than polite cinema might allow, and the fight sequence in which Evelyn squares off against two guys who have large trophies jammed up their butts — masterfully choreographed by stunt coordinator Timothy Eulich — is just the tip of the iceberg here.)
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” allows Yeoh to revisit the best kind of roles she’s ever had, shine in the kind of roles she was never given, and dive head-first into the kind of roles that have always seemed beneath her; first one after the other, and then later all at the same time. It’s no surprise that the star of “Supercop 2” still excels at balletic martial arts choreography (watching Quan decimate some rent-a-cops with a fanny pack is another story), just as it’s no secret that the beating heart of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” can play a withering mom so well that even people in the audience might feel like they’re letting her down.
But Yeoh’s performance as the ultimate everywoman is uniquely astonishing because of how well she braids her many talents together. Evelyn is splintered by self-denial to the degree that even her subtitles fracture apart at one point, and yet the actress playing her is so locked-in to the character’s belief that her life is “wrong” that you can feel Evelyn start to reclaim her perspective when things go truly haywire. The entire second chapter of this three-part movie unfolds like an exponentially more complex version of the memory chase from “Being John Malkovich,” and yet Yeoh never allows us to get lost as she careens across the multiverse — through everything, toward nothing, and possibly back towards a new understanding of “how things are supposed to be.”
Speaking of not realizing how good we had it, it’s telling that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” deliberately evokes so many different movies from 1999 (Daniels also tap into the manic thrum of “Magnolia” in order to depict the entropy of Evelyn’s daily life, and exhume the swaggering nihilism of “Fight Club” for the villain’s self-destructive mayhem). The closest sibling to this film in terms of its anything goes, everything goes hard, DIY doomsday cult aesthetic is probably the Sion Sono freak-outs that came a few years later — Joy’s costumes are worth the price of admission unto themselves, especially the Björk-inspired white bagel dress she wears to the end of the world — but there’s no mistaking that Daniels embody a there are no rules! approach that used to be commonplace in mainstream American cinema and now feels as alien to us as the members of Evelyn’s family do to each other. It’s wild that such a visionary take on the multiverse is getting a wide release while “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is still in theaters; it would be like a top 40 radio station playing “Kid A” and Kid Rock back-to-back one night in the early 2000s just because they both technically qualified as popular music.
The filmmaking here is so bold and without boundaries that it sometimes feels out of place in such a warm hug of a movie. That push-and-pull is endemic to the nature of Daniels’ work, and the more virtuosically multi-dimensional “Everything Everywhere All at Once” becomes, the more unambiguously its vision calcifies into a small handful of comforting truths. Any film that spans from the dawn of life on Earth to the potential death of the universe itself is going to operate in broad terms, and yet Evelyn and her family are such lovably specific people that it can be frustrating when they start talking to each other in platitudes, no matter how beautiful those platitudes often are.
This is a movie animated by the friction it creates from rubbing the entire concept of human existence against one woman’s struggle to focus on some paperwork — among so many other things, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has to be the truest depiction of ADHD I’ve ever seen — and Daniels can only hope to sustain that tension by constantly escalating the tug-of-war between the epicness of their premise and the intimacy of their characters. They have to double down on every joke and triple-underline every breakthrough just so that Evelyn’s epiphany that “we’re all small and stupid” might actually feel like the biggest thing in the world.
It does. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is about finding something to hold onto in the midst of oblivion, and it isn’t afraid to make itself the ultimate example of how that might work. Guided by an omnipresent Son Lux score that always manages to find a measure of harmony amid the chaos, Daniels spin the tedium of laundry and taxes into an apocalyptic war against the spirit of nihilism itself. And just when it seems like their runaway imaginations are about to lead this film up its own butthole and straight into the void beyond, something reaches out to hold it down and pull it back from the abyss (an image that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” makes literal in heart-burstingly poignant fashion).
In creating a multiverse so wide that even the greatest of miracles are reduced to mere statistical inevitabilities, Daniels have made something truly special: A movie that celebrates the infinite possibilities of its medium by finding a measure of I wouldn’t trade it for the world beauty in every permutation. A movie that reconciles the smallness of our lives with the infinity of their potential. A movie that will forever change the way you think about bluetooth, butt plugs, and Brad Bird — about everything bagels and everything else. This may not be the only universe there is, but it’s the only one we’ve got. But if we’re able to see it clearly, there’s an outside chance it might just be the only one we need.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. A24 will release it in theaters on Friday, March 25.