In 2016’s Swiss Army Man, gonzo auteur duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert made an aggressive bid for cult immortality by casting Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse so gaseous he could double as a decomposing jet ski. So it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the triggers for characters jumping between parallel universes in Everything Everywhere All at Once is to take a flying leap and impale themselves on jumbo butt plugs. Or to be precise, Internal Revenue Service Employee of the Month Awards unmistakably shaped like those sex toys, which doesn’t make the gag any less puerile.
Nothing if not true to its title, this frenetically plotted serve of stoner heaven is insanely imaginative and often a lot of fun. But at two hours-plus, it becomes unrelenting and wearisome. While a certain degree of chaotic maximalist overload seems inherent to any film about a multiverse rippling with a violent threat, the nonstop jumble of mad invention here sacrifices control.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
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The extensive martial arts action calls to mind the Jet Li multiverse vehicle, The One, which already felt like a generic imitator of The Matrix. Everything Everywhere is clever and creative enough to stand on its own, but the lack of restraint dulls any poignancy in the underlying thread of a fraught mother learning to listen to her family’s needs, making it ultimately seem like hollow flashiness. The story’s intimate angle gets virtually smothered.
Nevertheless, this is sure to be a rowdy opening-night entry at the SXSW Film Festival, and the A24 release (produced by the Russo Brothers) does have a winning card in the game lead performance of Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, the frazzled Chinese American owner of a laundromat drowning in documentation for an IRS audit.
Evelyn is so busy tallying receipts and preparing for the birthday party of her elderly father (James Hong) that her mild-mannered husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) can’t get a word in to discuss divorce. And their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) rocks the boat by insisting on bringing her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to the celebration. Peevish about Joy’s decision to drop out of college, Evelyn can barely acknowledge her daughter’s sexuality, instead merely telling her she’s getting fat.
On their way to a meeting with hard-bitten IRS case worker Deirdre Beaubeirdra (an amusingly de-glammed Jamie Lee Curtis), Waymond slaps a headset on Evelyn and informs her that the fate of every single world within an infinite multiverse is at stake and only she can save them. Despite the disorienting effect of seeing her whole life play out in fast-motion, Evelyn thinks Waymond is talking nonsense until she witnesses him taking down the entire IRS security staff with a fanny pack.
Having gotten her attention, he explains that a malevolent, all-seeing agent of anarchy named Jobu Tupaki is threatening destruction, so Evelyn must master the art of “verse-jumping” in order to correct the mistakes of the past and restore balance.
Almost everyone from her mundane reality resurfaces elsewhere in the multiverse, usually as an adversary, right down to Deirdre in demented banshee mode and a rude laundromat customer (Jenny Slate) whose lap dog gets repurposed as a weapon. The greatest conflict for Evelyn comes with the discovery that Jobu Tupaki is actually someone very close to her, whose formidable strength is perhaps fed by a simple yearning to be understood across the generational divide.
With invaluable assists from production designer Jason Kisvarday and costumer Shirley Kurata, Evelyn sees herself as a glamorous Hong Kong movie star attending a premiere, a master chef with virtuoso knife skills, a Beijing Opera star, a kung fu disciple, a piñata and even a sentient rock in a desert landscape. An alphaverse version of Waymond, meanwhile, is in a control RV with other alpha officers, monitoring the action and providing verse-jumping cues.
Everything is a random rearrangement of particles to form a different reality, described by Jobu Tupaki as a bagel with all the toppings, which she controls. In one dimension, everyone has wieners for fingers; in another, police truncheons turn into floppy dildos; then there are the folks with … spirit raccoons perched on their heads? It’s like Tarsem Singh’s The Cell with a sense of humor, albeit an often juvenile one.
DP Larkin Seiple, editor Paul Rogers and Los Angeles band Son Lux, who composed the eclectic score, deserve credit for keeping pace with the film’s unstinting commitment to visceral over-stimulation and its shapeshifting approach to genre.
The same goes for Yeoh, bouncing back and forth from fragile and exhausted to fierce and commanding. She has strong support, in particular, from The Goonies favorite Quan, making a welcome big-screen return, and the delightful Hsu. Fans will also get a kick out of Curtis straddling wild action with deadpan comedy and even an unexpected flicker of romance.
As Evelyn observes her life — literally watching it as a movie in one dimension — and the countless different turns it might have taken, Waymond is revealed to be an unlikely hero, opening her eyes to the virtues of kindness, patience and acceptance as tools to make the universe whole again.
That wisdom should come as a touching resolution after such a sustained visual and sonic onslaught, but that would require more engagement with the characters as people and less as human pinballs. Maybe if you were raised on videogames, you might find the movie’s tireless excesses exhilarating, and you might not mind that almost the entire two-and-a-quarter-hour barrage is cut like a trailer. Or you might just feel pummeled into submission and relieved when it’s over.