Directed by: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
Distributed by: A24
Written by Patrick Hao
The only thing hotter than the multiverse right now in American cinema is generational trauma, especially in narratives about the Asian diaspora. The Daniels, the filmmaking duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert making their second feature film after “Swiss Army Men,” combines the two in a fun, sometimes sophomoric but fully sincere romp. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” feels like an especially apt title for The Daniels as they use a mishmash of ideas that comes from their love of multimedia like comics, video games, and genre fiction for a family drama.
The film follows Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a middle-aged Chinese woman who is disappointed with her lot in life. She is married to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) a cheery loser of a man, owns a laundromat that is in the midst of an IRS audit, a daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), whose lifestyle choices Evelyn disapproves of has fractured their relationship despite the love that still exists between the two, and a father (James Hong) who Evelyn feels she has disappointed her whole life. Just when Evelyn feels as if she is at her lowest, Waymond from another universe takes over her Waymond. It turns out there is an infinite multiverse in which an evil force named Jobu Tupaki is threatening to destroy it all. This universe’s Evelyn is the only one who can stop this entity because of all the Evelyns in all the universes, this Evelyn is the worst, the most unaccomplished, and the most mediocre.
What follows is a kaleidoscopic journey in which Evelyn learns how to access the skills and talents of herself in other universes. It turns out that with small choices, Evelyn could have been a Michelle Yeoh-type movie star, a Hibachi chef, a scientist, and a woman with hot dog fingers. In jumping from universe to universe, The Daniels get to explore different genres and stylistic homages from animation to kung fu to art house. Explicit stylistic homages to films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “In the Mood for Love,” and “Rumble in the Bronx” do not feel like the film flaunting their cinephile bonafides, but genuine touchstones in their own media upbringing. What The Daniels succeed in most is their ability to construct whole sections of much-needed exposition to establish the rules of their movie in a clear and entertaining way. No movie has been as successful in this endeavor since “The Matrix.”
As filmmakers, The Daniels presents a vision whose audaciousness can become unwieldy at times. Yet, they have the sensibilities and skills to be able to back it up. As alluded to above, at the core of the film is a family in crisis. Jobu Tupaki’s creation is the result of Joy being pushed to the edge of the multiverse by her universe’s Evelyn. After all the rules and stakes are established, it is the relationship between Joy and Evelyn, and Evelyn and herself that becomes the central emotional heft that propels the movie forward.
None of the emotional cruces of the film could have worked without the central performances that anchor the film. Yeoh brings her iconic status which has not been allowed to be this loose and have this much fun playing a multitude of different roles, since her early days in Hong Kong Cinema. Her bonafides are well earned. Hsu, a relative newcomer whose credits are mostly from Broadway, is an equal match for Yeoh playing indifference charismatically. Jamie Lee Curtis even shows up to have fun as a curmudgeon IRS agent. But most surprising is Ke Huy Quan as Waymond, who most people know as Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and Data in “Goonies.” As Waymond both narratively and for the film, Quan is the heart of the film. What he does presents such a high degree of difficulty beyond technical acting abilities. It’s the type of performance that makes you ask, where has this actor been all our lives.
These performances support “Everything Everywhere All at Once” which presents an interesting rumination on the effects of inadequacies of nihilism as a worldview. The generational difference between Evelyn and Joy feels even more pronounced through their access to technology. But, The Daniels are not nihilistic like the mid-2000s Adult Swim era that they surely grew up on. They are more aligned in the emotional catharsis and self-reflection of kindness that is more in line with “Steven Universe” or “Bojack Horseman.”
If anything holds “Everything Everywhere All at Once” from being fully great is tone management. Like “Bojack Horseman,” the film is not afraid to be silly with jokes relating to hot dog fingers, pinatas, and raccoons. They also come from the school of callbacks which at a certain point undercuts some of the emotionality.
But, this is filmmaking that belongs on the big screen. The Daniels are not afraid to explore the realms of visual cinema in the most maximalist way possible. It can be quite overwhelming which in the world of underwhelming new releases is more than welcomed.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” Trailer