Everything Everywhere All at Once
★★☆☆☆

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as "Daniels”) follow up their divisive surrealist debut feature, the farting-corpse classic Swiss Army Man (2016), with this sci-fi martial-arts action comedy, Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh. The great Malaysian movie-star plays Evelyn Quan Wang, a haggard laundromat owner dealing with her demanding, elderly father (James Hong) who’s just arrived from China, her angsty Gen Z daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) who’s trying to get Evelyn to accept that she has a girlfriend, and her milquetoast husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) who’s attempting to muster up the strength to serve Evelyn with divorce papers. All of these tensions are heightened because their Simi Valley laundromat is undergoing an IRS audit. But while at the IRS office, an interdimensional rupture unravels Evelyn's understanding of reality and calls on her to harness newfound powers to battle existential threats from a newly revealed multiverse where she can experience and learn from many of the alternate lives that she has lived.

It's undeniably exciting to see the 59-year-old Yeoh in this lead role. She began her singular career as a Hong Kong action star in films like Yes, Madam (1985) and Supercop (1992), where her elegance and her ability to perform her own stunts made her a legend. International acclaim followed with her turns in global hits like Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Recently she's become a kind of cinematic elder stateswoman who can still kick ass in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).
Here in her unusual lead role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, she gets to show off her impressive physical skills while harnessing her weighty cinematic presence.

Also good to see is Ke Huy Quan, who most of us remember as a child star in the iconic Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985). After years of working as a stunt coordinator, he returns to acting, making effective use of his abilities as a screen fighter and his affable screen persona. And playing a surly IRS agent named Deirdre Beaubeirdra, Jamie Lee Curtis is afforded another juicy comic part, like her turn in Knives Out (2019)—her performance in pictures like these helps to counter her exhausting returns as the evermore traumatized Laurie Strode, in the endless Halloween sequels and reboots.  

The first twenty minutes of Everything Everywhere All at Once are a joy. As the unusual narrative and style unfold, we get excited to see where this offbeat and unexpected picture will take us. But about forty minutes in, we realize that it's not taking us anywhere. Everything Everywhere All at Once lives up to its name in the worst possible ways. Sequence after sequence twists back over itself to show us the same things, make the same jokes, and ponder the same shallow concepts with ever diminishing returns.

Movies about multiverses are in vogue these days, but the narrative feature film is the worst possible medium for exploring this type of existential notion. Unlike a novel, a movie (regardless of budget) can only show us a limited number of parallel universes—usually between 5 and 20—and every time a filmed story returns to one of the alternate realities it has shown us before, its entire concept of a multiverse appears smaller and narrower and more ridiculous. (I haven’t seen and will not be seeing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so if Marvel is doing something unimaginably inventive on screen with the multiverse concept, please feel free to ignore this as well as anything I’ve ever said about any film ever.)

The Daniels’ conception of the multiverse is a metaphor for the road not taken. Evelyn is able to see how her life would have played out had she made different choices, including not marrying her husband, not leaving China, and becoming a Michelle Yeoh type of movie star. She also discovers how abusive she’s been to her daughter in another incarnation. Exploring what happens when a character becomes self-aware—via witnessing alternate ways life could have played out—has captivating potential. In this case, however, the filmmakers aren’t interested in digging too deeply into the premise, as that would spoil the fun. These and several more random parallel universes exist mostly to provide fodder for elaborately staged fight scenes and to indulge in the movie’s insufferable and self-satisfied sense of humor.

That is, until the end of this 139-minute slog, when the intentionally bonkers picture suddenly starts to lecture the audience about the dangers of giving into nihilism. Of course, the simplistic lesson is sugarcoated with layer upon layer of winking whimsy, encouraging you not to take any of it too seriously. But how unsatisfying that a movie that tries this hard to be outrageously original culminates in the most generic resolution a contemporary sci-fi or metaphysical picture can come up with.

I’m constantly amazed when so many movies that wrestle with the big questions of existence can come up with nothing more substantial as a conclusion than a parent hugging their kid. This climatic trope gets trotted out again and again—Contact, A.I., Signs, War of the Worlds, Interstellar, Arrival, Ad Astra, The Midnight Sky, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and the list goes on. It’s not that many of these movies aren’t good, and it’s not that parent/child dynamics aren’t fascinating fodder for storytelling and great starting points when searching for the meaning of life. But when a film that claims to be “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” ends with something we’ve seen to the point where it has become a hackneyed cliché, it makes me want to embrace nihilism, not reject it.

Twitter Capsule:
What promises to be like nothing we've ever seen before quickly devolves into a series of repetitive dead ends making the same jokes and pondering the same shallow concepts with ever diminishing returns. Great cast though.

Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Produced by Mike Larocca, Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Jonathan Wang, Anthony Russo, and Joe Russo

Written by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

With: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Jonathan Ke Quan, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tallie Medel, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., and Biff Wiff

Cinematography: Larkin Seiple
Editing: Paul Rogers
Music: Son Lux

Runtime: 139 min
Release Date: 25 March 2022
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color