Everything Everywhere All at Once is a multiverse masterpiece
It’s just about impossible to overemphasize the winking vulgarity of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s work together as the filmmaking collective Daniels. Their first feature film, Swiss Army Man, saw Paul Dano riding the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe to freedom and glory. Their best-known music video, for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” has Kwan feeling the beat so hard that his crotch smashes through walls and ceilings, infecting the breasts and asses of everyone who sees him with similar destructive energy. In their short film Interesting Ball, a cosmic event results in Scheinert being bodily sucked up into Kwan’s rectum. Their imagery is often joyously crude, and almost always startling, as they go places most creators wouldn’t dare.
But at the same time, it’s just as difficult to overemphasize the humanistic messages their work embraces. All these projects have people finding a strangely compelling, life-affirming power in the weird, gross places the world takes them. Swiss Army Man in particular is downright startling in the depth of its thoughts on cynicism, existentialism, and the meaning of human connection. Daniels’ latest project, the wild martial-arts multiverse fantasy Everything Everywhere All at Once, continues the trend with bloody murder-dildos, weaponized snot, and a fast-paced, hilarious anal-insertion war. But it’s also an achingly honest examination of despair, cynicism, anger, and ennui, all leading up to a message that’s all the more moving because before it asserts that life is worth living, it stares deep into the abyss, considering all the reasons why people might think otherwise.
Everything Everywhere’s plot is best discovered in the moment, since it unfolds with a speed and verve that converts every new revelation into a fresh jolt of electricity. It’s enough to say that martial-arts superstar Michelle Yeoh stars as Evelyn Wang, an overstretched first-generation Chinese immigrant who owns a laundromat with her amiable husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), but barely has time for him or their frustrated adult daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) amid her day-to-day business struggles.
Among other things, the laundromat is being audited by humorless IRS agent Deirdre (a thoroughly disguised Jamie Lee Curtis), just as Evelyn is trying to impress her contemptuous visiting father, Gong Gong (James Hong). Meanwhile, Joy is trying to get Evelyn to acknowledge Joy’s girlfriend Becky, and Waymond is trying to get Evelyn to acknowledge him at all. When Evelyn is informed that she’s the key to fighting a vast evil that threatens the entire multiverse, her knee-jerk response is a distracted, exasperated “very busy today, no time to help you.”
When the threat catches up with her anyway, Everything Everywhere absolutely explodes into a series of creatively staged, comically over-the-top battles, a trip through different timelines and realities, and a staggeringly fast-paced series of personal explorations and revelations. The worlds Evelyn accesses are silly, sad, or strange, but none of them challenge her as much as the things she’s missed out on understanding about herself, her family, and her own past and future.
This is a movie that operates at the revved-up pace of stories like Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or the recent animated Oscar nominee The Mitchells vs. the Machines, with the characters dragged breathlessly from one manic action sequence to the next. And yet Kwan and Scheinert keep finding small, quiet pockets where Evelyn can consider how she’s let herself and other people down, what she owes them, and what she can still offer them. For a movie that frequently throws Evelyn through realities and through walls and windows, it’s admirably focused on her well-being and her understanding of herself. And more than that, it’s focused on understanding how people inevitably limit their possible futures whenever they make choices, and how meaningless life can look after a series of choices goes wrong.
Everything Everywhere’s multiverse is a remarkably flexible metaphor. It’s suitable for expressing some common frustrations the audience may relate to, about botched choices and wasted opportunity. But it’s just as suited for setting up a series of ridiculously kickass action sequences where literally anything is possible, because the characters aren’t bound by reality or causality. Kwan and Scheinert use that central idea of the multiverse to let their characters change bodies, costumes, skills, and settings on the fly, in ways that are visually dazzling and even overwhelming. But they set it all up with a clarity of thought and intention that make it surprisingly easy — and thrilling — to follow.
And even as they’re focusing on the big picture of a million universes collapsing around a single predatory evil, they’re just as aware of the smaller picture. So much of this story is told with tiny, telling details, like the way Joy nervously, wordlessly rolls her girlfriend’s sleeves down to cover her tattoos before trying to introduce her to Gong Gong. Or the way Waymond wistfully watches two older Chinese people at the IRS exchanging a demure kiss, and clearly longs for the same kind of tenderness in his life. Above all else, the Daniels trust their viewers to keep up with the story even when these kinds of grace notes are blurring by at warp speed, without explanation or underlining.
Everything Everywhere All at Once operates in a pop culture universe filled with familiar detritus for genre fans: a little Douglas Adams absurdity here, a visual quote or concept or line or mood cribbed from a wealth of other movies there. But while the Daniels quote 2001: A Space Odyssey in one scene and The Terminator in another, the movie’s biggest touchpoint is The Matrix, and not just because Evelyn discovers, to her surprise, that she knows kung fu.
In spite of a long series of Matrix sequels and re-quels, ripoffs and copycats, this is the first movie that authentically feels as surprising, daring, and outright game-changing as the Wachowskis’ 1999 original. The special effects, with that kaleidoscopic approach to shifting forms, look as radical now as bullet time was when it first arrived. The movie’s heady deconstructive philosophy of the universe feels as ambitious and radical as The Matrix’s Gnostic take on reality did back then. And the martial-arts combat, carefully positioned between impressively choreographed and openly silly, feels as radical as it ever has in a Jackie Chan or Woo-Ping Yuen choreographed fight.
But where The Matrix is entirely caught up in its own sense of airless cool, in its humorless cybertech-Gothic aesthetic and love of kickass tableaux, Everything Everywhere has a sense of play and humor that helps make all the existential philosophy go down more smoothly. One effect of that warp-speed storytelling is that the film sometimes slingshots from pathos to punchlines, then back again, quickly enough to induce whiplash. But in this anything-goes environment, the shifts don’t feel like tonal contradictions. They just feel like an acknowledgment that life is simultaneously painful and absurd, and that the tension between the two helps define the sensation of being human.
The cast is just stellar. Ke Huy Quan — Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Data in The Goonies — may be the biggest revelation in the cast, with a demanding role that has him switching affects and personalities repeatedly throughout the film, while maintaining that gentle longing throughout. But the Daniels demand a lot of all of their cast, and Yeoh, Hsu, Hong, and Curtis are up to the movie’s deeply weird challenges. (Jenny Slate and Glee’s Harry Shum Jr. also show up in minor roles that no one’s likely to forget.) Like all of Kwan and Scheinert’s projects, Everything Everywhere is distinctive, both in its big ambitions and its subversive grossness. No one else makes movies like this. Possibly no one else would even want to.
That can be a little sad to consider — even in a multiverse of endless possibility, we’re unlikely to see a movie like this again. But at the same time, it means that every moment of Everything Everywhere is an exciting unknown. There’s no predicting where a Daniels project will travel in any given moment: up a character’s ass, or off into their wildest dreams. Sometimes it’s both at once. The miracle is that Scheinert and Kwan make it all feel natural, even when they’re going places no one else could imagine.