It’s a thought we’ve all had before. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Did I take a wrong turn somewhere along the way? An entire subgenre of mumblecore indies has blossomed from such universal ennui. At first glance, the Daniels’ deceptively straightforward Everything Everywhere All at Once might be one of them. The film’s protagonist, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), is a meek middle-aged woman who can barely stand her nerdy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) or the life they’ve built for the last 30 years running a laundromat. And these days, their only source of excitement is the pursuit of a relentless IRS woman.
While the daily indignities of existence are at the heart of Everything Everywhere, they’re also a springboard—a thematic DeLorean to cling to as the movie slowly, but confidently, unfurls the vastness of its science fiction vision. The result is one of the most wildly creative and ambitious genre movies to hit cinemas in some years, revealing that even within the drudgery of a laundromat or an IRS office, the secrets of the multiverse are hidden in plain sight. And when they’re unlocked, what’s released is nothing short of kaleidoscopic madness–and pure, demented bliss.
The focal point through this wonderland is, of course, Yeoh as Evelyn. Initially a role about a million degrees removed from Yeoh’s early Hong Kong and international martial arts films, including Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Evelyn is a put upon woman when we meet her, desperately trying to get regulars at her laundromat to turn up for a Chinese New Year celebration and, tellingly, keeping her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) at arm’s length. It’s not Evelyn’s fault, she insists, that they’re becoming estranged; her daughter has revealed she has a girlfriend and Evelyn feels obligated to shield the news from Joy’s Chinese grandfather (James Hong) because he wouldn’t understand.
This mousiness falls away, however, on the fateful day Evelyn goes to a consultation with the auditor from hell, Deidre Beaubeirdra (an unyielding Jamie Lee Curtis). Poring over years of receipts and mislabeled small business expenses, Curtis’ big woman on a tiny hill is adamant that this is the most important day of Evelyn and husband Waymond’s lives. She’s not wrong, although the reason why surprises even Deidre as slowly, one by one, all the folks in the IRS office are possessed by variants of themselves from throughout the multiverse—beginning with sweet, feckless Waymond.
Transforming from George McFly to Kyle Reese in a moment, a suddenly assertive, black belted Waymond tells his wife from another dimension some crucial information: She’s the most important Evelyn in the multiverse, and if she wants to stay that way, she better start hopping realities fast because all the other ones he’s known have met violent deaths.
The multiple dimensions shtick is a concept we’ve seen explored in a lot of big budget Hollywood blockbusters as of late. It was the crux of the biggest movie of 2021, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and is poised to bring multiple Batman actors back to the big screen later this year in a movie obligatorily titled The Flash. But in both instances, the actual implications of something like string theory appear to only exist in order for studios to raid their intellectual property’s histories while in search of more nostalgia to exploit.
Conversely, Everything Everywhere All at Once, which just had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, accepts the challenge of really entertaining the bugnut possibilities. What would it be like to discover an infinite number of versions of yourself? If one wants to know the closest pop culture companion piece that might exist, this lands closer to something as weird and flamboyant as one of the best episodes of Rick and Morty. But basic comparisons such as that are almost a disservice, especially for something as humanist and ultimately well-meaning as the Daniels’ cinematic daydream.
The emotional resonance of the film is couched in the second-guessing Evelyn feels—multiverse Waymond even notes the reason she is the most special Evelyn is she’s the first he’s met who’s failed at everything she ever started, making her a perfect sponge for absorbing others’ experiences. In spite of that back-handed compliment, the character’s journey is giddy; she embarks on a cosmic quest in which she’s allowed to see herself, and her family, from every possible vantage.
Indeed, we get to see the whole cast play a cornucopia of variations upon their prime characters, ranging from a dabble in the martial arts cinema that Yeoh’s always excelled at to lacing in Yeoh’s actual real life, with one variant of Evelyn being a movie star whose daily glamour is interspersed with footage from Yeoh’s red carpet history. Similarly, Huy Quan, an actor many still most remember as Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, runs the gamut of Waymonds from the milquetoast to the debonair, to the one ready to star in a wuxia picture.
Through it all, directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert bring an irreverent energy akin to their Swiss Army Man (or for that matter Scheinert’s underrated The Death of Dick Long), only now fully unbound. Yeoh, Hsu, and even Curtis enter realms where fingers are replaced by hot dogs, and Disney movies come to life, and where each “gateway” for crossing over is more happily ludicrous than the last. But the more tonal perversity the picture indulges, the more grounded it remains because of the central three performances that essay a family on the verge of collapse.
In this regard, Yeoh, Hsu, and Huy Quan become a cohesive glue that tethers the Daniels’ most gonzo gags, with Yeoh making a meal out of playing every flavor of a woman who’s been overlooked and undervalued. Evelyn is tragic and aspirational, silly and heartbreaking, and ultimately undeniable, especially in the final scenes she shares with daughter Joy.
Everything Everywhere is the type of film that comes around only once in a blue moon. It’s so brimming with invention and ideas—where even vignettes that last less than a minute could be whole films—that it’s dazzling to behold. And whatever else you take away from this review, know you should absolutely not look away from its brilliance when it comes to a cinema near you.
A24 releases Everything Everywhere All at Once in the U.S. on March 25. It premiered at SXSW on March 11.