A movie like Everything Everywhere All At Once allows me to humorously ask: “What if you chose not to read this review?” Seriously, keep going right now, but what if you didn’t? What if you continued scrolling through to something different on your phone? How is the day different? What sort of situation may you find yourself in because of such a small decision? Here’s a film that grapples this concept with applications both extreme and minuscule. It emphasizes the shifting balance of the infinite universes that could exist based on the simplest decisions that guide someone’s journey every second. All of this is told within a story that’s laser-focused on a character masterfully played by Michell Yeoh, who was apparently fully on board with what directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as Daniels) had in store for this interdimensional action film.
It would be simple to say there’s no easy way to describe this story, and anyone interested should just go along for the ride, but that wouldn’t be fair. Everything Everywhere All At Once has a clear throughline. Yeoh stars as Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American woman exhausted by everything. We think it may all be sorted out if she can get her taxes done in time to keep her laundromat business afloat, settling down her spirited husband (Ke Huy Quan) in the process, and possibly giving her the time needed to clarify things with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her aging father (James Hong).
Something interrupts this, and it’s big. Can the Daniels handle it? Yes. The idea of a modestly-budgeted A24 film that wants to incorporate wild sci-fi concepts is not out of the ordinary for this studio. Still, one sometimes wonders if these newer feature filmmakers have the skills to match their ambition. The Daniels’ last film, Swiss Army Man, featured Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse being guided along by a distraught Paul Dano. It was weird, yet some held it up for its philosophical ideas presented amid a story that follows a flatulent-infused dead body.
Everything Everywhere All At Once interrupts its core story with the introduction of the multiverse. Evelyn suddenly learns a ton about the universe from another man embodying her husband, Waymond. Of course, it still is him, but not the Waymond she knows. How is this possible? Well, a lot of science mumbo-jumbo that has led to the use of Bluetooth devices acting as instruments helping connect the brainwaves of different versions of oneself across the multiverse. Why is this all happening? Well, Evelyn just may be the one who can get to a figure known as Jobu Tapaki, who seemingly has a plan to destroy the multiverse.
Is this confusing to think about? Perhaps. Rather than grinding everything to a halt to explain it all on a chalkboard, does the film illustrate what’s happening creatively? Fortunately, yes. Everything Everywhere All At Once is one of the most inventive films I have seen in some time. The way it can balance characters, story, and out-of-this-world concepts is impressive, to say the least. Even better, it makes understanding this film’s world incredibly fun to wrestle with.
As the film gets into this bizarre high concept, the Daniels establish how a character needs to do something improbably random to sync their mind with one of their other-selves. This movie presents this concept in a wild, quite funny manner, and with enough earnestness for an audience to always believe the characters are emotionally committed to whatever we see on screen. This allows Everything Everywhere All At Once to have some very amusing running gags (I will never forget one particular Pixar joke), and root it all in the character journey unfolding across this multiverse.
The approach taken to achieve this vision would be entirely too chaotic in the hands of those less indebted to the film world the Daniels seem to fully understand. Because of how they’ve planned this out, however (and I can’t even imagine pitching or storyboarding this craziness), there are times when the audience is required to be keeping track of at least five different versions of the main cast, and yet the film has not missed a beat in how to convey this effectively. It’s further balanced out by supplying an ample amount of well-staged fight sequences, shot with the kind of clarity anyone should expect from much larger productions (yet routinely aren’t getting).
None of this would be as worthwhile without a proper foundation, which comes in the form of these wonderful performances. While there is plenty of fun to be had throughout Everything Everywhere All At Once, there are some vital relationships this film needs to focus on to deliver more than just a trippy experience. As a result, the second half carries a level of pathos, further informing who we are following. In turn, this speaks to one of the main ideas behind the film – finding value in one’s life.
This movie cleverly takes apart the concept of the hero’s journey by assigning Evelyn as “the special” and making it clear she hasn’t really succeeded at anything. Sure, it’s easier to invest in her, as opposed to a perfect version of her in another universe, but watching Yeoh navigate the struggles of her character plays well in allowing us to sympathize and recognize the huge beating heart this movie has.
The Daniels clearly love their characters. Jamie Lee Curtis has a supporting role as an irritating IRS inspector who has other versions of herself that are even more threatening. The film knows exactly what’s needed to make us care about her. That ridiculous Pixar joke I mentioned, well, the character involved (Harry Shum Jr.) is incredibly silly, yet I fully buy into the complicated position he’s in as well.
However, at the center of it all comes a story about a mother and daughter, and the generational issues that bind them. Regardless of where this all goes (and the film aims to be quite unpredictable), knowing this emotional center is clearly as important as all the insane visuals around it goes a long way in informing my reaction to the entire movie.
This isn’t even to say the film gets too weepy for its own good or lost in conflicting tones. No, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a blast from start to finish. It is never at a loss of energy to keep things moving as they need to. On top of that, the film features excellent performances across the board.
Yeoh already has a career of great roles behind her, but she’s given a chance to play up dramatic angles, broad comedy, and her martial arts skills all in one incredibly effective part. Ke Huy Quan is a long way from Short Round, as he’s fully invested in going back and forth between goofy husband and confident swashbuckler for the techno age. Stephanie Hsu, who I’m much less familiar with, matches everyone beat for beat in a role just as complex. Plus, because where else can I mention it? The ingenious makeup and costume design that informs the various versions of each of these characters is just one more fantastic element of this film.
I had little doubt Everything Everywhere All At Once would present a real mind-bender of a story. Still, I was incredibly impressed with how coherent it ended up feeling. This is a movie that features characters seriously considering the paths they have taken in life, along with a universe where people have hotdogs for fingers. The fact that it still plays like an emotionally heavy movie while relying on a daffy charm fitting of a Looney Tunes cartoon is awe-inspiring. Add to that a collection of excellent performances, and the Daniels have shown they are a filmmaking force to be reckoned with in this universe and any others that will have them.