As A24’s calmingly minimalist trailer will preclude, the utter beauty and lightning-like credence of Everything Everywhere All at Once can only achieve its own justice when experienced big. Preferably with the screen engulfing the viewer. The wonders of the multiverse crave the atmosphere of the cinema, perhaps more than any pandemic-era film seems to have done. Not even a dense Marvel-centric story being exhibited in IMAX could compare in the same direct manner. Matter of fact, it would be far more striking. Visually, aurally, and tonally in synchronous bliss, as this simplistically complicated exercise in familial regret unspools. Aided by its eye-popping imagery, it does get to some really heavy corners.
Perhaps the most troubling of which is the noncommittal mindset of our lead. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is the typical American success story in reverse. Having survived for years as a laundromat owner in a cutthroat section of California’s tech arena, life was once a lovely thing with husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Now, it’s far from blissful, as her business is cratering due to poor money management. Her marriage has reached the skids, her daughter’s dating a girl, and her father Gong (James Hong) has given her a persistent cold shoulder.
Her state of discontent comes to a wild head on Chinese New Year. As she hosts a party for the community and regular customers, she transitions into a total out of body experience. One that even mere words would limit a descriptive conviction. It’s here she discovers what a fragmented, glass-shard-fractured realm the multiverse is. Each thread opens up many what if scenarios bridging the optimism of Evelyn’s past, a broken present, and a malaise-struck future. One version shows her as an athletic kung fu fighter, a golden-throated world cinema icon in another. All the variations in between open up a rather pressure-laden door to long buried penitence.
With the symbolism of the family’s financial livelihood at danger a constant in every dimension, the IRS breathing down their necks with paperwork ill-aligned at the mercy of a ruthless agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is hesitant to accept her destiny. As an alpha version of Waymond sees it, she’s the only one qualified to restore balance to the multiverse. So long as her own flaws don’t weigh her down. Thankfully he trusts her enough with an earpiece and a specific set of instructions for the purposes of “verse jumping”. Traveling at high speed with an Inception-level grace between sections of the wider multiverse like they were complex neural pathways.
And that much is at least half true, the other half is left up to one’s discordant imagination. Writer/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man) are all too humble by that idea, embracing the weird to reconnect with a sense of unity. Without diving into too much detail, it’s tough to ignore just how weird this pair will go. Between hyper focused stunt choreography, hot dogs for fingers, an homage to Ratatouille with raccoons in place of rodents, and rocks with googly eyes, the limits needn’t hit too far to break past the atmosphere.
That visual splendor’s certainly half the fun, a total sensory immersion experiment which Daniels strive to push, and not gently. When and if one were to boil it down, it’d be two parts Shaw Brothers genre feast, one part Fincher grit, and the smallest fragment of a music video quick cut sequence. At times, it thrives when trying to heal from generational disconnect. At others, it’s an unashamed pop culture collage worthy of peering into one’s soul. Editor Paul Rogers (The Death of Dick Long) always keeps one step ahead of Daniels’ careful strides, both anticipating that next move and then shuffling the pieces around to stay unpredictable. The musical flourishes of Son Lux (with guests like David Byrne and Randy Newman) leave the aural atmosphere like something of an eclipse. And Larkin Seiple’s (Luce) expert handiwork on camera redefines on-sight acrobatics without a word.
The basis of speech and physicality belongs with Yeoh, a screen vet whose star power has finally matched the level she’d built away from Hollywood. Following up on masterful supporting performances in Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, at long last she’s worked her way up to leading lady, pouring every ounce of soul into a character as meaningful as it is personal. Same goes for Curtis, grateful to be invited, and to re-sharpen her comic edge. Quan is nothing short of an unexpected treat, far away from his 80s sidekick though still at home, and at his most mature. Hong’s granddad continues a steady hot streak for the character actor, and Hsu is a class all her own, with a tight, often defiant to control demeanor that is blatantly Gen-Z adherent. To the point where her word-heavy rapacity borders on the darkly poetic. It’s that effective to the moment, every time she pops up.
With how much of Evelyn’s personal missteps shed a light on the worst possible or least successful version of her personality, fulfilling that part of the deal can only go so far if the environment they’re around can’t match that same psycho-emotional proving ground. The Daniels know just how to raise that upper hand with clear, immediate precision. Not only does it illustrate Evelyn’s thought process, it further locks into that “actions always have consequences” motif. The jovial, often evil, always energetic spirit of running amok in space time is never far from this pair’s directorial approach.
There may be an idea, a construct, a blueprint already decided in our minds when embarking on this venture. But it is destined to be crumbled away all too quickly as everything follows a path impossible to chat, eager to go everywhere without fail at a speed unfathomable. And especially, being nothing short of omnipresent, presenting all of its ideas all at once, in a simultaneous fashion that will overwhelm some, and effectively please the often weighed down mind whose coping strategy is to overthink. For anyone in that boat, they see to gain the most from this venture. Perhaps to where more than one viewing will have already been warranted by the halfway mark.
To the mind, any film can be seen as a mechanism of pieces only moving as the plot does. Without a worthwhile story, the mechanism can’t function as effectively as promised. And Daniels more than fulfill on the promise of a tale whose cogs often overshadow the total sum. Everything Everywhere All at Once left me wonderfully satisfied on the basis of its own smaller pieces dutifully going far beyond mere momentum building. To even say it’s funny, smart, intense, or compassionate is not enough to describe its finite genius.
In the duo’s goal to visualize the multiverse like it were a new form of storytelling unbound by the rules or metrics of an established IP, they effectively set a new benchmark for modern American cinema. A raw watershed moment for its accompanying zeitgeist. That heartfelt, crowd-pleasing spunk so few films have succeeded in capturing, bottling, preserving in the last 24 months. And above all else, being one with its moment in the spotlight. If a comic book feature on 4,000 screens can ignite that spark, then surely an indie sci-fi/action/dramedy hybrid slowly expanding into cities and towns can latch onto that same flame. And at the same time, surpass its own true brilliance. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
Everything Everywhere All at Once arrives in Seattle area theaters (Pacific Place, Lincoln Square and Thornton Place) April 1, with a wide break the following Friday; rated R for some violence, sexual material and language; 140 minutes.