Moviegoers with imagination-overload issues can’t say they weren’t warned by the title of the Daniels’ second feature, “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”
A maximalist promise deliriously realized, this epic adventure swirls sci-fi, metaphysics, martial arts, slapstick, star power, and pop culture shout-outs into the type of experience that one can imagine the late exhibition gimmick impresario William Castle — he who notoriously wired theater seats so they buzzed — responding with, “Yeah, this doesn’t need my help.”
But while Daniel Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s dimension-hopping narrative flings doppelgängers, evil forces, and comically elusive superpowers at us, it also weaves a believably grounded indie family drama, one in which Michelle Yeoh’s stressed, short-tempered laundromat owner Evelyn Wang clashes with her sweet husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), upsets her gay daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), worries about her elderly dad (James Hong), and faces a brutal tax audit.
In other words, it’s little before it’s big, but even when its freaky fireworks tower of effects, rude comedy, stuntcraft, and world-building seems too much, it’s never entirely removed from its initial knot of character sensitivity: a Chinese-American woman wondering how things got this way, what might have been, and what can be done now. Your reference mileage may vary, but in its bedlam of tones and visuals, it’s simultaneously a gamer’s weepie, a mama “Matrix” (“Matriarch-ix”?), and — why not — a tax-season “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
To say that “Everything” primarily takes place in an open-plan office is true but deceiving. (Like saying “Groundhog Day” takes place over 24 hours.) An IRS building is indeed literally where Evelyn, receipts in hand, family in tow for (whatever) support (is left), must confront a rules-bound inspector named Dierdre — played by a white-haired, grim-faced Jamie Lee Curtis — for what seems like a life reckoning.
But then nobody seems quite who they are – or where they are — revealing to the gobsmacked Evelyn a multi-verse (with multi-hers) in which she’s been tasked with defeating a wily, colorful, persona-shifting malevolence called Jobu Tupaki. Much of the Daniels’ puckish verve comes from combatants’ available skills, which cleverly derive from parallel worlds representing roads Evelyn never took, requiring tests (called “jumping pads”) that range from the silly to the sublime.
It’s not the smoothest of transitions from the human-scaled opening scenes to the initially cryptic rules of the film’s choose-your-own-adventure playground. But once you learn to embrace the chaos — which is, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the movie’s points about dealing with life’s messiness — you begin to see why hot dogs for fingers isn’t just a sight gag, how two rocks could have a meaningful conversation, and that a bagel can represent a black hole. Also that some battles can, and probably should, be waged with kindness.
It also helps that Yeoh has been gifted a canvas worthy of her fierce, regal magnetism, which has always centered her as an action heroine and leading lady. She was born Ready Player One for this kind of physical, quick-change star turn, easily making Evelyn’s confusions relatable and her triumphs noteworthy. And in one especially elegant, referentially winking multi-verse segment set in glamorous Hong Kong, she’ll make you wish she’d played a brooding romantic for Wong Kar-wai. (There’s still time, WKW!)
The game actors around her adapt well to the mayhem, because the Daniels treat them like prize talent. Hsu’s alienated daughter is palpably complicated, while Hong and Curtis remind us why they’re versatile, role-chewing genre legends. Maybe the trippiest thrill (especially for ‘80s-movie aficionados) is watching Quan effortlessly shift between sweet dad and inter-dimensional warrior with a silent comedian’s charm and grace, as if all the years since playing Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” had been properly filled with great parts.
Technically, it’s a sturdy real-meets-surreal flex for the directors’ creative team, from cinematographer Larkin Seiple (also at SXSW with “To Leslie”) to production designer Jason Kisvarday (“Palm Springs”), while the Son Lux score is one of those all-over-the-map accompaniments that somehow feels connected to the film’s wavelength, rather than competing with it.
In fact, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” doesn’t seem like its disparate parts should gel. And if there’s a glaring risk to a movie like this, it’s a running time more closely associated with bloated superhero behemoths than heartfelt sleepers (albeit with lots of action). But the Daniels are unusually present ringmasters here, eschewing the flippancy that marred their splashy quirk-quake “Swiss Army Man” for a more big-feeling anarchic escapism. In their nifty code-switching, we-all-contain-multitudes metaphor, they’ve concocted something that feels genuinely attuned to our modern anxieties, but also embracing of our coping mechanisms.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” opens in US theaters March 25.