Everything Everywhere All at Once Achieves the Impossible

Movies Reviews SXSW 2022
Everything Everywhere All at Once Achieves the Impossible

If there’s anything about Everything Everywhere All at Once that should not come as a surprise, it’s that it writes an obscenely ginormous check and then manages to cash every last penny of it. After all, the film comes from directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), the masterminds who managed to make Swiss Army Man, a movie about a man who befriends a semi-sentient corpse, actually work.

Indeed, the film’s flawless ambition to delivery ratio won’t come as a surprise, but just about every other thing about it will.  Everything Everywhere All at Once follows Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a jaded, middle-aged laundromat owner who may or may not be involved in some minor tax fraud. Her tedious, repetitive life is thrown into total pandemonium, however, when her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan)—or at least a version of him—alerts her to the existence of the multiverse on the elevator ride to an IRS meeting. He then explains that a powerful villain named Jobu Tupaki is in the process of constructing a universe-destroying force that only Evelyn has the ability to stop.

And so Evelyn reluctantly plunges headfirst into the multiverse. The facts: There are an infinite number of universes that exist simultaneously, containing just about anything you could possibly imagine. The rules: To acquire different skills, you must picture a universe in which you inhabit that skill, whether it be inhumanly strong pinky fingers or a mastery of knife-fighting. (If you can think it up, it exists.)

What follows, then, are roughly 140 frenetic minutes filled to the brim with dense, complex science, colorful setpieces and scenes that feel like they’ve been pulled straight out of dreams far too abstract to describe. As you can probably gather,  Everything Everywhere All at Once is not dissimilar to its title—and a lot to wrap your head around.

From the moment the multiverse kicks into action, and Evelyn is launched into a frantic split-screen-style consciousness that flickers effortlessly between an IRS meeting and the janitorial closet where she is called to action, it is clear that the Daniels aren’t the least bit apprehensive of the possibility that they might overload their viewers. Without a breath’s hesitation, they start to explore the outer limits of the universe through whiplash-inducing montages, while peppering in a generous number of references to classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix and various Wong Kar-wai films. This excessive level of confidence is refreshing. It’s simply up to the viewer to relinquish control, strap into the rollercoaster seat and trust that the ride will take them somewhere transcendent. And it does.

If all this sounds intimidating (which, let’s be honest, how could it not?), rest assured that  Everything Everywhere All at Once is grounded by an effortlessly simple emotional throughline. Indeed, the film contains as much emotional maturity as it does cool concepts and ostentatious images (yes, including a giant butt plug and raccoon chef). At its core, it is a story about love and family, carried by the dazzling Yeoh in a subtle and unsentimental performance. Inherent in parallel universes, Evelyn learns, is the notion that a single choice can change the trajectory of one’s entire life. In tear-jerking flashbacks, she recalls the moment that she and Waymond decided to get married—a decision Evelyn’s parents shunned her for. Through these flashbacks, the Daniels ask us if we could watch our lives play out a different way, would we dare to look?

It serves the film’s emotional epicenter greatly that Evelyn is awarded so much complexity—from her cruelty to her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her flippancy to Waymond, to her generally harried demeanor and unmatched comic timing. This makes it so that when she is finally offered a moment of genuine emotional catharsis—accompanied by swelling strings and neon mood lighting—it doesn’t feel like the Daniels are overplaying their hand. Similarly, IRS inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) turns out to be much more than your average villain, and is given multiple avenues through which to explore her humanity in the multiverse.

For a movie that is genuinely about everything everywhere all at once,  Everything Everywhere All at Once’s emotional undertones and themes are remarkably controlled. Whenever Evelyn flips from one ‘verse to another, there is a sense that she is on a journey not to comprehend the vastness of the universe, but to reconcile her own place within it. And for such a big ask, the mission feels extraordinarily simple.

It’s hard to make a movie about the multiverse. It’s even harder to make a movie about the meaning of life. The Daniels somewhat miraculously accomplish both. The contents of  Everything Everywhere All at Once feels like a wild, loose brainstorm of all of the pieces one could possibly put together in a film about the multiverse. This includes a universe in which everyone has hot dogs for fingers, one in which Ratatouille takes place with a raccoon instead of a rat and one with a lengthy, subtitled scene between two talking rocks. None of these things feel out of place—not only that, but it feels as though the film couldn’t function without them.

Where  Everything Everywhere All at Once’s emotional throughline is Evelyn’s relationship with her family, its visual thread manifests as a series of hypnotic, vertiginous action sequences, choreographed like a ballet by Andy and Brian Le. As a bonus, these sequences recall Yeoh’s iconic role in Ang Lee’s wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When it came to capturing this spectacle on camera, the Daniels had their work cut out for them. But with the help of Swiss Army Man cinematographer Larkin Seiple, they managed to embody the awe that Evelyn feels watching these infinite new ‘verses unfold before her eyes. The directors do not shy away from the use of dizzying flashing lights, or rapidly shifting light sources that disorient the viewer. They also aren’t afraid to implement over-the-top images, like a person’s head exploding into confetti or a butt-naked man flying in slow-motion toward the camera. At the same time, movement between ‘verses feels seamless through Paul Rogers’ meticulous editing, as does the effortless fashion in which different aspect ratios melt into one another.

If Everything Everywhere All at Once can be boiled down to one, simple question, it would be reflexive of its own title: Can you really have everything everywhere all at once? Whatever the characters’ answers end up being (I’ll let you discover that on your own), I am certain that the Daniels would say yes, of course you can.

Directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Writers: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Stars: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr.
Release Date: March 25, 2022

Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.

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