To describe the experience of watching Everything Everywhere All At Once as “sensory overload,” (as Florida Project director Sean Baker put it recently) is a bit of an understatement. There are times it feels like trying to take a sip of content and getting blasted with the totality of the last 40-years of pop culture through a firehose. When the publicist asked me what I thought after the screening, I said “I feel like I just got skull-f*cked. But in a good way?” (The directors apparently appreciated this description).
Everything Everywhere All At Once concerns “the multiverse” — the infinite number of parallel dimensions created by every life decision and the random collisions of sub-atomic somethingorothers. Where other directors may have toyed with concepts like time travel, separate realities running in parallel, and different versions of characters living in separate universes, usually these concepts show up as sparsely-explained excuses for why, say, three different Spider-men have to appear in the same scene. It’s a commercial imposition masquerading as an artistic choice, and Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the directors known collectively as “Daniels”) don’t believe in those.
To them, the way most movies toy with the nature of reality seemed infuriatingly utilitarian. “My pet peeve is time travel when you introduce it and just do a tiny bit like it’s no big deal,” Scheinert told Indiewire this week. “It would be such a big deal! Like if logic broke down and time didn’t move forward and a million people could go back in time a million number of times, there’d be absolute chaos.”
In many ways, Everything Everywhere All At Once is the Daniels creating the chaos they’d hoped to see in the world, a movie in which commercial impositions cannot exist without artistic consequences. The plot concerns Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), the owner of a failing laundromat, who has a lesbian daughter who resents her (Stephanie Hsu), a husband who’s sick of being ignored (Ke Huy Quan), and an ailing father with a series of crushing expectations (James Hong). Then one day, a version of her husband who isn’t really her husband shows up to explain that there’s a disturbance in the fabric of space-time or some such, and that Evelyn might actually be the key to everything.
The next 40 minutes or so are a manic pastiche of Evelyn meeting other Evelyns from different dimensions in a race against different daughters from different dimensions with the help of different husbands and grandfathers. Her adversary generally takes the form of Dierdre, an IRS functionary played by Jamie Lee Curtis. The parallels to a thousand other things, from Cloud Atlas to The Matrix to Douglas Adams (AC Weisbecker’s 1986 book, Cosmic Banditos, arguably the funniest book ever written about quantum physics, also deserves mention here), are obvious, and the casting alone should give you some sense of the pop culture stunt the Daniels are trying to pull off.
Just as with mainstream cinema’s too easy takes on interdimensional travel, the Daniels strive to delve deeper into actors who have too often appeared in gimmicky ways. Yeoh, too often the martial arts movie sidekick; Hong, the all-purpose Asian heavy of the 80s and 90s (perhaps you remember him from Big Trouble In China?); and Quan, in another life the little kid who played Short Round in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Data in The Goonies, now a 50-year-old man coming off a 20-year acting hiatus.
As a stunt, Everything Everywhere is interesting enough, at first, though its frantic manic shifting between different universes does get a little enervating. Through it all, it offers just enough moments of weirdly perfect meta-comedy to stay invested. Daniel Scheinert made unforgettable comedic magic with Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd in his 2019 masterpiece, The Death Of Dick Long, and Everything Everywhere similar squeezes comedy from a perfect musical: Nine Days’ 2000 hit, “Absolutely (Story Of A Girl),” which becomes a recurring musical motif in Everything Everywhere. It’s the perfect song, that you remember but can’t place, and don’t know where or why you heard it, the ultimate sonic uncanny valley.
If Everything Everywhere All At Once was just the Daniels pulling a stunt, even for all its technical brilliance it would go from cute to tiresome in a hurry. But just when you think you’ve been battered within an inch of your attention span by this… cosmic gumbo, which moves to the beat of jazz (oh yeah, Biff Wiff gets a cameo here, did I mention that?)… Everything Everywhere takes a necessary turn for the earnest. It goes from using the multiverse as a narrative plaything (going rightly overboard in the process, like Homer Simpson with the star wipe), to genuinely trying to reckon with the concept of infinite realities.
If existence really consists of an infinite number of parallel universes, who are you in all of it? Why are you? The point at which Everything Everywhere becomes more than just a movie stunt takes place in a dimension where life never happened and Evelyn and her daughter, Joy exist as a pair of rocks, conversing with subtitles about what it means to be, or not to be. It’s cutesy, certainly, but in a world where post-modern digression is the dominant style, being a little cringe is revolutionary.
So yeah, in a fractal kaleidoscope of clashing interdimensional worlds, of course the characters were ultimately going to discover that having each other is really the most important thing. Maybe that’s a corny answer, but it’s kind of the best we’ve got. If Turning Red used the fantastic to explore one first-generation Asian immigrant daughter’s fraught relationship with her mother, Everything Everywhere does much the same using the multiverse — it’s a bit like if Edgar Wright tried to direct a live-action Pixar movie high on ether.
What makes Everything Everywhere work is not that it’s zany, it’s that it actually finds a purpose for its zaniness, or least tries to. The Daniels are provocateurs, brilliant technical filmmakers. More importantly, they actually strive not to be full of shit. God bless them.