Review: ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once' is transcendent and a bit exhausting
CHICAGO - Editor's note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the SXSW Film Festival. It has been expanded and republished timed to the film's expansion into theaters nationwide on April 8. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is now playing everywhere (all at once). You can also read FOX's interview with directing duo Daniels.
A trailer can disguise a bad movie or undersell a great one. So the good news for "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is that its delightfully gonzo trailer accurately reflects exactly what’s in the tin: An absolutely bananas, action-packed interdimensional dark comedy about an everyday wife and mother charged with saving the multiverse.
The trouble is, "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is paced like a movie trailer for nearly it’s entire 140-minute runtime — barely letting up to breathe as it tells a story that’s at once massive in scope and deeply intimate in scale.
That makes the experience of watching it a dual one: In many ways, "Everything Everywhere" is a transcendently singular film that remixes familiar genre tropes into something that feels wholly new and quietly revolutionary. In other ways, it’s just exhausting.
About ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’: The multiverse goes arthouse
(L-R) Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan. Photo Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24
There’s no denying it’s right on trend, however. As multiverses become all the rage in projects like "Spider-Man: No Way Home" and "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," proudly out-there directing duo the "Daniels" (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) bring an auteurist edge to this comic book staple.
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In place of the strapping male superheroes who often anchor these kinds of stories, "Everything Everywhere" centers on Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a middle-aged Chinese-American woman with a struggling laundromat business, a struggling marriage and a struggling relationship to her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
Her floundering finances have a judgmental IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) breathing down her neck, while husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is considering divorce, if only to force them to finally have an honest conversation about their stagnant relationship.
And then one day, Waymond’s body is suddenly overtaken by a souped-up version of himself from another universe who casually takes down an entire armed security team with a fanny pack and recruits Evelyn to help him save the multiverse from a creeping threat known as Jobu Tupaki.
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It’s a "Matrix"-meets-"Wrinkle In Time" setup filtered through the lens of Hong Kong cinema and more than a touch of Douglas Adams surrealist humor. To tap into the experiences and skillsets of other versions of yourself, you have to perform a randomly generated action — from wearing your shoes on the wrong feet to eating chapstick to things that are far, far more puerile.
Indeed, this is undoubtably a film from the directors who last gave us "Swiss Army Man," the movie where Daniel Radcliffe played a corpse whose explosive farts allowed a shipwrecked Paul Dano to ride him around the ocean like a jetski. That outrageous premise belied a dark comedy that was also a surprisingly moving exploration of friendship and coming of age, and "Everything Everywhere All At Once" aims to deliver the same kind of bold tonal shifts — only on an exponentially larger scale.
(L-R) Michelle Yeoh, Jing Li. Photo Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24
At the film’s SXSW premiere, the Daniels explained that part of the reason for the six-year gestation period between "Swiss Army Man" and "Everything Everywhere" is that they decided to take every rejected music video idea they’d ever had and cram them all into one movie. And that "everything but the kitchen sink" ethos is both the best and worst thing about "Everything Everywhere All At Once," which takes a proudly maximalist approach as it combines creatively staged, enthusiastically shot action with over-the-top production and costume design.
See ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ for: Its messy ambition
Michelle Yeoh in "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Photo: A24.
There’s no doubt that the pure ambition on display is stunning, and the Daniels couldn’t have found a better cast to anchor a film that’s sometimes a sci-fi martial arts epic, sometimes a "Sliding Doors"-style drama, sometimes an over-the-top Paul Verhoeven-style satire and sometimes just a ridiculous fratty comedy. ("Everything Everywhere" is the rare movie to try to balance themes of suicidal ideation with butt-plug-centric physical comedy.)
The incredible dexterity Yeoh has demonstrated across her nearly 40-year career reaches a pinnacle here, as she effortlessly shifts between an endless number of Evelyns — from a frazzled, frustrated family woman to a glamorous movie star to a confident martial arts master to a lovelorn woman with hot dogs for fingers.
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It’s the kind of showcase Yeoh has long deserved from American cinema and it’s thrilling to see her get it, especially when "Everything Everywhere" also puts her expert comedic timing to great use as well. Equally revelatory is Quan, the erstwhile child star of "The Goonies" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" who retired from acting over the lack of opportunities for Asian Americans but returned after being inspired by "Crazy Rich Asians" (which also featured Yeoh). His layered, multifaceted performance as Waymond — equal parts comedic, dreamy and badass — ultimately emerges as the heart of the film.
Ke Huy Quan in "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Photo: A24.
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Or one of its hearts, at least. As with its over-the-top visual storytelling, "Everything Everywhere" takes a more-is-more approach to its emotionality too, exploring not just a husband/wife story but also a mother/daughter one too — oh, and with James Hong thrown in as Evelyn’s elderly father as well. It’s a lot to swallow in a movie that leaps across universes and yet also feels a little claustrophobically contained within an IRS office building. While the aim here is clearly to tell a story that touches on every facet of Evelyn’s life, what the movie gains in breadth it loses in depth. At times it’s only Yeoh’s Herculean performance that holds it all together.
Indeed, it’s enticing to imagine a version of this film that followed Coco Chanel’s advice and took one thing off before leaving the house. Especially if that would have allowed the film space to explore its themes without stating them so bluntly. But perhaps that would have clashed with its central ethos that we aren’t defined by just one thing, but by, well, everything everywhere all at once. That what’s absurd one moment can be profoundly moving the next.
The multiverse-wide battle that takes center stage in "Everything Everywhere" is ultimately one between hope and cynicism, conflict and compassion, love and hate. If nothing matters on an extensional level, maybe that means we’re free to prioritize the things that matter to us on a human one. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is a film that wrestles with the pressure of living your best life and finds hope in the idea of living your worst one, even if you have to jump through multiverses to realize it. In that way, the Daniels have crafted a film as weird and messy as life itself.
Grade: Every grade, everywhere, all at once
Reviewed out of the SXSW Film Festival. Opens in theaters March 25. Rated R. 140 minutes. Dir: Daniels. Featuring: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr.
Michelle Yeoh. Photo credit: Allyson Riggs/A24
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
More revelatory action cinema, streaming free on Tubi
Battle Royale (2000): Call it the original "Hunger Games." This 2000 Japanese action-thriller is set in a near-future world where the totalitarian government curbs juvenile delinqueny by selecting a random high school class to fight to the death each year. Once banned for its controversial subject matter, "Battle Royale" has now emerged as a brutal, bloody, hugely influential cult classic.
Rated TV-MA. 122 minutes. Dir: Kinji Fukasaku. Language: Japanese. Featuring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003): Director Robert Rodriguez conjures a bloodbath (and concludes his "Mexico" trilogy) when El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), at the behest of a bonkers CIA operative (Johnny Depp), tracks the nefarious cartel kingpin (Willem Dafoe) who murdered the notorious gunslinger’s wife. Rated R. 101 minutes. Dir: Robert Rodriguez. Also featuring Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin.
Fist of Fury (1972): This iconic action movie stars the great Bruce Lee as "a student who fights for the honor of the oppressed Chinese people and to avenge his master’s murder." Rated R. 106 minutes. Dir: Wei Lo. Also featuring Maria Yi, James Tien, Robert Baker, Miao Ker Hsiu.
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