A general rule film students learn the first few weeks of their intro class is that a film teaches you how to watch it within the first five minutes. Well, most. The latest outing from Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) throws everything it’s got against the wall and, if it doesn’t stick after a minute, turns itself on its head and shoots its characters into the next parallel universe. Marvel opened up this can of worms and if there can be countless Spider-Men, why can’t Evelyn Wang, a Chinese-American laundromat owner and collector of random hobbies, also have a parallel existence she’s just starting to tap into?
That is the entry point of Everything Everywhere All At Once, a sprawling action-comedy that lives up to its name and ambition across three asymmetric chapters that are best left for you to discover—the rabbit hole is deeper, wider, and weirder than it first appears. It always comes down to “death and taxes” and, in the world the film sets as our starting point, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is undergoing an IRS audit with Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), whom Evelyn may or may not know from a past life. Deirdre is a ruthless, ultimately not unloveable bureaucrat who’s received multiple butt-plug trophies for her work finding questionable write-offs like Evelyn’s karaoke machine.
In the default universe, Evelyn is an empty vessel on the verge of a divorce from Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) while also still processing her daughter Joy’s (Stephanie Hsu) coming out and the impact it may have on her father Gong Gong (James Hong), who never much liked Waymond. Waymond is the one who introduces Evelyn to the multiverse concept, finding the rabbit hole not from a red or blue pill but a pair of bluetooth headphones that were considered revolutionary 20-or-so years ago.
Through the multiverse, Evelyn kicks ass and takes names while also exploring the cultural trauma in her present reality and various paths she could have taken had she not married Waymond. Everything itself is a mash-up of styles, exploring the iconography of its legendary lead Michelle Yeoh, who continues to flashback to a premiere of a movie about her life in a Man with the Movie Camera-style breaking of boundaries.
That is, of course, not the only boundaries the film breaks and/or bodyslams throughout. The Daniels have funneled an energy some may have found occasionally obnoxious in their debut feature Swiss Army Man into a frenetic race against time with little restraint but plenty precision. Veteran music-video directors, the duo have an overflowing reservoir of ideas in which artists play various personae. Long-time collaborator and cinematographer Larkin Seiple is up for the challenge, channeling the visual styles of Wong Kar-wai’s romantic cityscapes, the hell of an IRS cubicle farm, the lively laundromat, a hibachi restaurant with a Pixar homage, and a Matthew Barney-inspired purgatory where the secrets of the world revolve around an everything bagel that really is covered in everything.
Is Everything Everywhere All At Once a marvel? Or is it, as Joy says at a less-than-critical point, “a statical inevitability, it’s nothing special”? It’s a film that gleefully, hilariously subverts expectations at every corner, borrowing à la music videos from pop culture, experimental film, and any corner of the universe it finds inspiration in. For the SXSW opening night-crowd it was a rousing pleaser; for the general public, it might just very well be a new cult classic.
Everything Everywhere All At Once premiered at SXSW 2022 and opens on March 25.