‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’ Review: It’s Messy and Glorious
The idea of the multiverse has been an enigma for modern physics and a disaster for modern popular culture. I’m aware some of you here in this universe will disagree, but more often than not a conceit that promises ingenuity and narrative abundance has delivered aggressive brand extension and the endless recombination of cliches. If I had enough people and time, I could turn these thoughts into a thunderous supervillain rant, but instead, I’m happy to report that my research has uncovered a rare and valuable exception.
It would be “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, an exuberant whirlwind of genre anarchy directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The filmmakers – who work under the name Daniels and are best known for the wonderfully unclassifiable “Swiss Army Man” (with Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse) – are happy to defy the laws of probability, plausibility and consistency . The plot of this film is as full of twists and turns as the pot of noodles that appears in an opening scene. Messing it up would be impossible. Summarizing this would take forever – literally!
But while the hectic action sequences and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo heists are a big part of the fun (and the marketing), they’re not really the point. This whirlwind turns on tenderness and charm. As in Pixar’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Inside Out,” ancient ingenuity serves a sincere and generous heart. Yes, the film is a multiverse metaphysical journey into the head of the galaxy, but at its core – and also on the surface – it’s a bittersweet domestic drama, a marital comedy, an immigrant story and a painful ballad of mother-daughter love.
At the center of it all is Evelyn Wang, played by the great Michelle Yeoh with grace, grit and perfect comedic timing. Evelyn, who left China as a young woman, runs a laundromat somewhere in America with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). His life is his own little universe of stress and frustration. Evelyn’s father (James Hong), who practically disowned her when she married Waymond, is visiting to celebrate her birthday. An IRS audit is looming. Waymond files for divorce, which he says is the only way to get his wife’s attention. Their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), has self-esteem issues and also a girlfriend named Becky (Tallie Medel), and Evelyn doesn’t know how to handle Joy’s teenage angst or her sexuality.
The first section of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is played in a key of quasi-realism. There are hints of the cosmic chaos to come, in the form of ominous musical cues (score is by Son Lux) and swirling camera movements (cinematography is by Larkin Seiple) – but the mundane chaos of the existence of ‘Evelyn offers a lot of drama.
To put it another way, the Daniels understand that she and her situation are already interesting. The key to “Everything” is that deadlines and proliferating possibilities, while fraught with danger and nonsense, represent not so much an alternative to the grayness of reality as an extension of its complexity.
Things start to take a turn as Waymond and Evelyn approach their dreaded encounter with Deirdre, an IRS bureaucrat played with impeccable unpleasantness by Jamie Lee Curtis. Waymond – until now a timid and nervous man – transforms into a battle-ready space commando, wielding his fanny pack like a deadly weapon. He hastily explains to Evelyn that the stability of the multiverse is threatened by a power-crazed demon named Jobu Tupaki, and that Evelyn must practice jumping between universes in order to fight. Jumps are accomplished by doing something crazy and then pressing a button on an earbud. The tax office turns into a scene of martial arts mayhem. Eventually, Jobu Tupaki shows up and turns out to be…
You will see for yourself. And I hope you will. Daniels’ mastery of modern cinematic tropes is encyclopedic and also eccentric. As Evelyn zigzags through different universes, she finds herself in a live scam of “Ratatouille”; a smoky send-off of Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood For Love”; a world where humans have hot dogs for their fingers and play the piano with their feet; and a child’s birthday party where she is a piñata. It’s a small sample. The philosophical underpinning of this madness is the notion that every choice Evelyn (and everyone else) made in her life was an involuntary act of cosmogenesis. Paths not taken blossom into new worlds. Endless world.
Metaphysical high jinks turn out to have a solid moral foundation. The multiverse – not to mention her own family – may be beyond Evelyn’s control, but she does possess free will, which means responsibility for her own actions and her obligations to those around her. As her adventures develop, she first appears as one of those solitary, almost messianic cinema heroines, “the one” who has the power to confront absolute evil.
Yeoh certainly has the necessary charisma, but “Everything Everywhere” is really about something other than the usual heroics. No one is alone in the multiverse, which happens to be a place for families to work through their issues. And while you’ll probably be tickled and dazzled by the visual variety and whiz-bang effects, you might be surprised to find yourself moved by the performance. Quan, a child star of the 1980s (in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Goonies”), has an almost Chaplinesque ability to go from clownish to pathetic. Hsu hits every note of the Gen-Z songbook with perfect balance. And don’t sleep on Grandpa: Hong almost steals the show.
Is it perfect? No movie with that kind of premise — or title — will ever be a neat, never-ending affair. Maybe it’s taking too long. Maybe it lags in some places or spins too frantically in others. But I love my messy multiverses, and if I say “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is too much, it’s a way of acknowledging the generosity of the Daniels.
Everything everywhere all at once
Rated R. Fighting and swearing. Duration: 2h12. In theaters.