No film in recent memory gets a more appropriate title than Everything Everywhere All at Once. Over the course of its dizzying, dazzling 140 minutes, multiple movie genres smash into each other, like protons in a particle accelerator. The result is an explosion of pure cinematic energy, with shockwaves of dense plot bursting from the screen. Sadness blends with joy; existentialism breaks against pure nihilism. Action scenes sit next to meditative drama without apology. In the end, I expected a kitchen sink to go flying across the screen, like the tornado debris in The Wizard of Oz. Oh well, I guess a supernatural bagel will just have to do.
Everything‘s plot is so mind-boggling, I fear describing it might be like trying to hit Tim Wakefield’s knuckle ball. The film opens on Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese-American woman whose entire life is on the brink of ruin. Her laundromat is being audited by the IRS, and the prickly agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) seems bent on her destruction. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s marriage to good-hearted Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) has settled into a groove of emotional apathy. If any love is still there, it lives under an overgrowth of spiritual neglect.
On another front, Evelyn’s relationship with her headstrong daughter has also grown increasingly sour. Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is a lesbian with a longtime girlfriend (Tallie Medel), and Evelyn reacts to the their relationship with passive disapproval. Tensions rise even more with the arrival of Evelyn’s socially conservative grandfather (James Hong), who spent a lifetime intimidating his daughter with chilly disappointment. Add all this together, and it seems Evelyn is going nowhere, all at once.
It’s here that writer-directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (working under the collective psuedonym “Daniel”) start pouring sauce into the gumbo. About the time Evelyn and Waymond are traveling through the IRS building, he drops a bombshell: He’s not the Waymond she married, but a variation from an alternate universe. Turns out, our reality is one of infinite possibilities, each defined by the choices we make. Waymond presents her with some fantastical evidence of his claim, and Evelyn slowly confronts the idea that her existence isn’t at all what she thinks.
If you think that sounds kooky, Daniel and Dan are just getting warmed up: We learn that metaverse is like a sprawling hive, with different realities buzzing near each other a bustling honeycomb. Unfortunately, everything everywhere is under grave threat from a being of unimaginable power. As you might guess, the nebbish, forgettable Evelyn holds the key to destroying this geometric evil and restoring all the universes to their natural state.
I’d say I don’t want to give more away, but spoiling this movie is much more difficult than it sounds. Everything is a frantic, eccentric experience, and nebulous unpredictability provides much of its magic. Scenes will shock you with flashes of morbid or inappropriate humor; intimate drama hurtles in from left field. (In fact, much of this film dwells out in deep left.) Frequently, the Daniels rely on undiluted absurdity for both laughs and to confront Everything‘s sprawling philosophical tangle on the meaning of life itself.
Are we, meager sentient beings, more than the sum of our fragile biological parts? Or, if we’re all destined to be dupes within an aimless, shapeless, shifting blob of unreliable realities, does anything matter? Everything isn’t about arriving at any kind of concrete answers, but rather in the profound, loony odyssey of discovery.
Did I paint this movie as completely off the deep end? If so, good–I’ve done my job. Think of this review as a disclaimer: Everything Everywhere All at Once is not for everyone. Its unhinged genius might be off-putting. A longish runtime will only amplify that unabashed weirdness. (The Daniels riff heavily on Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, if that helps steer you I the right direction.) If you’re game for wacky, thought provoking cinema, then you’ll have a damn good time with this. Otherwise, viewer beware.
Count me with the former group. I giggled throughout the film, often from its sheer shock value. Equally pleasing were the lead performances of Yeoh and Quan, both of whom display remarkable versatility in playing diverse variations of the same character. Likewise, Curtis’ brings several emotional shades to her IRS drone, whether she’s playing a sadistic taskmaster or a vulnerable milquetoast. All three actors deliver the finest work of their respective careers. Meanwhile, Hsu has devilish fun with a character who’s brimming with surprises. Huge props also go to editor Paul Rogers and cinematographer Larkin Seiple, who somehow keep this jam-packed story coherent from start to finish.
As the final credits rolled, I tried to process the film I had just seen. It’s loaded with action scenes, but Everything doesn’t feel exactly like an action movie. Is it a comedy? A drama? An action dramedy? I’m still not completely sure. Maybe that moving bullseye is what makes this a masterwork. In the end, the Daniels truly deliver a film that goes all-in on its title, and that might be the best thing about it.
140 minutes. In theaters only.