AUSTIN, Texas — [The following review was written as part of KENS 5's coverage of the SXSW 2022 Film Festival. The movie opens in local theaters Friday.]
Spiderverses here, a multiverse of madness there, a Batmanverse on the horizon…you don’t need to have your finger on the pulse of pop culture to see how Hollywood’s biggest franchises have committed to going full multiverse.
Leave it to Michelle Yeoh, who’s managed the truly superheroic trajectory of transitioning from Asian cinema to a steady presence in the Western-movie mainstream, to set a new standard for universe-fracturing tomfoolery in “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” A24’s certifiably manic sci-fi-fantasy epic that somehow manages to make room for some potent ruminations on possibility, deliriously imagined set pieces and one incredible Pixar-related gag that takes on a multiverse of its own.
What is it, exactly, that Yeoh and co-writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (they go by the collectively pseudonym “Daniels”) do in their new film, which premiered to the first in-person SXSW screening in three years Friday evening? What don’t they do? Daniels previously conjured up 2016’s surreal modern fable “Swiss Army Man,” which, for all its farting-corpse feigning towards sincerity, might still leave some viewers wondering if they were the victims of a $3 million prank several years later.
That same audience can rest assured “Everything Everywhere All At Once” will have them feeling more confident that, yes, there’s a genuine humanity at the core of Daniels’ work, here taking the form of Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang facing down a tinderbox of familial and cultural ultimatums which will be set ablaze by the mother of all stressors: tax trouble. It just so happens that Daniels’ story is filtered through a kaleidoscope of prior cinematic innovation, cartoonish exaggeration and cosmic coincidence as Evelyn is drawn into a conflict against an all-powerful villain wherein she’ll have to unlock her true potential and fulfill a cross-universal destiny…or something. Truth be told, the blueprints of this particular war are a bit confusing. Hell, can any movie delving into the ramifications of a splintering multiverse afford not to be?
The difference between this and a “No Way Home” is that those consequences are more or less just a starting point for the latter. For the colorfully chaotic “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” it’s the very air in its lungs. So exuberantly does it live up to the tornadic suggestion of its title that it’s a minor miracle this 130ish-minute movie, riffing at various points on “The Matrix,” Wong Kar-Wai and Charlie Kaufman, doesn’t fly off the tonal rails 30 minutes in. Perhaps more accurately, it manages to ricochet at lightning speeds within the guardrails of the zany and massively varied universe it creates for its own, a universe whose flourishes may drop your jaw, could make you squirm, will likely lead you to break out in laughter a fair few times.
It will also, even likelier, have you marveling at the existential frankness that comes to define Evelyn’s story as she reckons with the infinite delineations it could have taken all the way, each providing a peephole look at talents she doesn’t have or successes she missed out on; the frequent and frantic universe-hopping becomes her way of contending with evil as she forges her own superhero story, and that takes on more than one connotation here.
But what the movie also understands about pondering what could have been is that the tunnel vision can make you neglect what’s around you now. Driving Daniels’ artistic imperative (to more satisfying and perhaps more self-satisfied effects than “Swiss Army Man”) is that their boundless capacity for the bizarre underscores the emotional foundation of their story. “You have the potential to be great at anything because you’re so bad at everything,” Evelyn is told at one point, and for a movie increasingly at risk of overcooking its sentiments, the bluntness of the line proves versatile: it gives the slightly overlong “Everything Everywhere All At Once” a sturdy conceptual footing and its protagonist something more to overcome than the universe-devouring power of a particular baked product. I’ll leave that at that.
It’s one thing that Daniels are remarkably adept at paying off gags which begin as little more than seeming inside jokes, but when Evelyn briefly finds herself stuck in two universes at once against a cracked screen, her actions in one inadvertently spilling into the other (an idea the movie continuously waters en route to its impressively constructed climax), the metaphor is as poignant as it is playful.
Suffice to say, Yeoh sells it with the passion of a performer who’s been waiting a long time to break free from being typecast into roles defined – and limited – by their gentility (see: the prim and proper matriarch of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the one-dimensional narrative bridge in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”). Here she’s a volatile presence even before Evelyn is yanked across dimensions–critical of her daughter (an exceptionally good Stephanie Hsu), skeptical of her laundromat’s customers (including a scene-stealing Jenny Slate) and too distracted to notice her marriage is teetering on the edge. In a performance that demands a range of emotional actualization, Yeoh balances having to mirror our incredulity with deeper, more existential confusions that arise as she continues to be magnetized towards another attractive, more luxuriously blessed life she could’ve lived.
Perhaps in another universe, too, we might have been blessed with a fuller Hollywood career from Ke Huy Quan, best known for playing Short Round alongside Indiana Jones in a time when movies had barely gotten bit by the sequel bug, let alone been infected with multiverse mania. Playing Evelyn’s stuck-at-a-crossroads husband in one respect and her multiversal guide in another, Quan has his fair share of memorable moments – including the movie’s first meaty, ingeniously rendered action sequence – in a script that leaves no major actor hanging for both butt-kicking and heart-tugging. But his triumphant return, the performance bolstered by a trademark boyishness it seems he’ll always retain, adds a new dimension when you consider his screen partner, another Asian-born performer whose past years couldn’t have played out more differently.
That is to say, Quan’s casting feels unquestionably purposeful. Maybe Daniels are just big “Temple of Doom” fans? It could be that simple. But when “Everything Everywhere All At Once” throws its biggest metatextual curveball and forms its most aching multiversal cracks that could double as glimpses of the most romantic short film we’re likely to see in 2022 once some savvy editor eventually pieces them together, you sense something in his performance that is too haunting, too pensive, too true not to be rooted in lived experience.
Couple the evocative parallel-observations of Quan’s character with the flair by which he wields a most unlikely weapon in the movie’s opening third, and you have the performance of a lifetime, or several. It turns out “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” in addition to what should be a star-making turn for Hsu, functions quite powerfully as a vessel of two long-overdue roles for Quan and Yeoh. That feels perfectly appropriate for a movie about how, somehow and in some inconceivable way, diverting paths will eventually arrive at the same destination when they’re meant to.
"Everything Everywhere All At Once" is rated R for some violence, sexual material and language. It opens in San Antonio theaters Friday. Runtime: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert