Review: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is, for better or worse, exactly that
At the beginning of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the camera creeps slowly toward a circular mirror — an apt start for a movie that will soon whoosh its characters through one looking glass after another. Amid all the whooshing, though, try to hold on to the image of that circle, which isn’t the easiest thing to do amid all the sights and sounds, frenzied fight scenes and grotesque sight gags that Daniels — a.k.a. the writing-directing duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Swiss Army Man”) — have crammed into their latest surreal head-spinner of a movie.
Still, they do leave a trail of metaphysical breadcrumbs, or perhaps I should say bagel crumbs. That circle will recur throughout the movie, first in the glass door of a washing machine and later as an extremely literal “everything bagel,” a giant cosmic doughnut that has been sprinkled with flecks of every piece of matter that has ever existed. Is this bagel the circle of life or perhaps the Circle of Eternal Return, a concept that pops up in the work of the German novelist Michael Ende and the Ukrainian artist Valerii Lamakh? It feels more like a black hole, destined to swallow up everything and everyone because, at the end of the day, as one character puts it, “nothing matters.”
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Does your head hurt yet, or just your soul? Running a funny, messy, moving, grotesque, sometimes exhilarating and often exasperating 140 minutes, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” can be a pain and knows it; it might also be its own cure. Crammed with ideas, jokes, laments, non sequiturs and some terrific actors you’ve seen before (if not nearly enough), the movie comes at you like a warm hug wrapped in a kung fu chop: It’s both a sweet, sentimental story about a Chinese American family and a wild, maximalist sensory assault. In the end, its many swirling parts unite around a remarkably coherent purpose: to provide a rare and dazzling showcase for a megawatt performer who scowls, gasps, punches, kicks, leaps, flips, soars and finally transcends.
That would be Michelle Yeoh, who has long been one of Asia’s top action stars but — from early breakthroughs (“Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) through prestige disappointments (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Lady”) to a few high-profile supporting turns (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) — has never enjoyed the spectacular Hollywood career she’s long deserved. (Even “Everything Everywhere,” originally conceived for Jackie Chan before Daniels decided to reconceive the lead as a woman, nearly eluded her as well.) The agony of what might have been haunts Yeoh’s stardom, and it also looms over her Evelyn Wang, a stressed-out, desperately unfulfilled woman who’s staring down the barrel of the IRS as the action gets underway.
A messy tax audit of her family-run laundromat isn’t the only thing weighing on Evelyn. She’s busy planning a birthday party for her overbearing dad (the great 93-year-old veteran James Hong), from whom she’s hiding the fact that her teenage daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is a lesbian. (And has a girlfriend, played by Tallie Medel.) Evelyn also has a patient, long-suffering husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), whom she’s so used to neglecting that she hasn’t even noticed he’s filing for divorce. Then, during a visit to their cranky auditor, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is suddenly yanked out of her body — whoosh! — and transported into that of another Evelyn, and then another Evelyn, and then another Evelyn, all of them occupying their own distinct parallel universes.
Welcome, in other words, to the latest cinematic incarnation of the multiverse, in which an infinite number of parallel timelines suddenly converge in a maelstrom of controlled chaos. That concept, a longtime science fiction staple, has been repopularized of late in the last couple of Spider-Man features (and the forthcoming “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”), which makes it all the more welcome to see an iteration that doesn’t spring from a corporate-branded property. In this one, the multiverse has come under threat from an unstoppable evil force known as Jobu Tobacky, and Evelyn — despite or perhaps because of her utterly unremarkable existence — is the only one capable of defeating it. To do this, she will have to jump repeatedly between universes and, like a video-game paladin shifting fighting styles at will, absorb the special powers of her many, many fellow Evelyns.
These include, among others, Evelyn the Peking opera singer, Evelyn the Hong Kong movie star (cue a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of Yeoh attending the “Crazy Rich Asians” premiere), Evelyn the woman with hot dogs for fingers (don’t ask) and Evelyn the teppanyaki chef. Charmingly, a lot of these adventures seem to hark back to various late-’90s antecedents: Like Neo in “The Matrix,” Evelyn is a messiah-in-training who must learn to absorb powerful fighting techniques in the trippiest possible way. And like the indecisive heroines of “Sliding Doors” and “Run Lola Run,” though to a vastly more insane degree, she must entertain multiple possible versions of her own story — all in a movie that plays at times like a very long, very surreal “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel from which the pages have been torn out and then glued back together at random.
I will leave the actual mechanics of Evelyn’s interdimensional portal-hopping for you to discover; you’ll learn most of them from Waymond, who, through one of this multiverse’s many quirks, frequently doubles as an exposition delivery machine. Suffice it to say that the constantly evolving rules often require the characters to do gross, painful and embarrassing things, like inflict paper cuts on themselves, make photocopies of their nether-regions and use trophies as butt plugs. Kwan and Scheinert clearly haven’t abandoned the giddy anal fixations of “Swiss Army Man,” a.k.a. the movie that starred Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse. (And they say auteurism is dead.)
The directors’ signature mix of frenetic silliness and disarming sincerity unlocks something especially fresh and exciting in Yeoh. Given how often she’s been typecast as a figure of serene, Zen-like composure, it’s a tonic to see her play someone who so conspicuously doesn’t have her act together, a woman with blood on her brow, anxiety in her gaze and a voice that sometimes cracks as it rises several octaves above her usual register. (She’s an oddity, and also an auditee.) The result is as passionate and exhaustive a love letter as any filmmakers have ever written to their star, and Yeoh answers it by fusing action, comedy and drama with a grace and dexterity she’s seldom been given the chance to muster.
As it happens, Evelyn isn’t the only character popping up in multiple dimensions here, and Yeoh isn’t the only actor to turn multitasking into art. Curtis brings just the right demented comic edge to her many faces of Deirdre (most of them scowling, some of them sympathetic), while Hsu piercingly registers Joy’s sadness even amid a flurry of outlandish wardrobe changes (courtesy of costume designer Shirley Kurata). Most poignant of all is Quan, whom you’ll recognize as the ’80s child star who played Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and Data in “The Goonies.” His subsequent, yearslong rejection by an industry that didn’t know what to do with him is subtly referenced — and even rectified — in his performance as a husband and father with his own easily underestimated reserves of strength.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is thus a story of redemption and reconciliation, as sweet and sentimental at its core as it is deliriously busy on the surface. (The vibrant cinematography is by Larkin Seiple, the hyperaccelerated editing by Paul Rogers and the madly inventive production design by Jason Kisvarday.) As a drama of Asian mother-daughter conflict, it would make an appropriate double bill with Pixar’s current fantasy “Turning Red.” As a movie about the roads not taken, it taps into the inexhaustible wellspring of romantic melancholy that is Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” explicitly saluted in Evelyn’s most wistful timeline. Here, it isn’t just an irretrievable past that keeps flashing before her eyes; it’s all the tantalizing possibilities of a better, more fulfilling and meaningful life than the one she’s been leading.
And it is this very insistence on endless, simultaneous possibilities that leads me to render a verdict on “Everything Everywhere All at Once” that may seem inconclusive at best and craven at worst, but which I very much offer up in this movie’s endearing, maddening spirit. Is it a visionary triumph or a gaudy, overstuffed folly? Does it bog down in numbing repetition or discover, within that repetition, an aesthetic and philosophical energy all its own? Not to advance a circular argument, but yes to all of the above. I don’t know if this movie fully works in this universe, but I suspect it might in the next.
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
In English, Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles
Rating: R, for some violence, sexual material and language
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: Starts March 25 in general release
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