By Noah Gittell
Some movies teach you how to watch them. Others make you hold on tight for the ride. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the second kind. The kaleidoscopic film from writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert is a sci-fi movie, a martial arts flick, a comedy, an immigrant story, or maybe just a 140-minute dose of pure surrealism. It moves so fast, you’re sure to miss stuff the first time around, but its breakneck speed and refusal to bow to convention is all part of its charm.
Its cosmic pleasures are built on a solid, relatable core: Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymong Wong (Ke Huy Quan) are an Asian-American couple who are first-generation immigrants and own a laundromat. Their lives are small. They have a 20-something daughter (Stephanie Hsu), and Evelyn has a father (James Hong) from the homeland who is in the U.S. for a visit. More urgently, the Wongs have a problem with the IRS. They owe back taxes for Evelyn’s overly creative deductions; a karaoke machine is not a business expense for a laundromat. While arguing their case to a devilish IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), something very strange happens: A crack opens up in the universe and Evelyn is called to join an epic, multiverse-spanning battle against evil forces, most of whom look and sound like the people in her normal life.
An unremarkable person being called upon to fight a secret war happening right under our noses? Yes, there is plenty of “The Matrix” in there, and the filmmakers are just the right age to have had their young minds blown by that film. But “Everything Everywhere All at Once” expands exponentially on the ideas of that film. Just like its universe-jumping protagonist, it layers genres, tones, and winking pop culture references on top of itself until it reaches something like cinematic euphoria. To try to describe it in one sentence is foolishness. It’s a sci-fi epic and a heartfelt immigrant story. It’s a martial arts flick and a family drama. It’s got vulgar jokes and ancient wisdom. It’s old and young at once.
It’s a film designed to show you things you have not seen. The concept of multiverses has quickly become de rigueur thanks to Marvel, but this film takes the idea to its most bonkers extreme: Evelyn learns that the way to jump into a parallel universe is to do something highly improbable — like snort an insect or declare love to the person she’s fighting. It’s a neat idea that wins points for originality but also becomes a set-up for jokes both wildly funny and just plain disgusting. In contrast to Marvel’s nostalgia-based approach to the multiverse, this film’s novelty and creativity feels like a gulp of fresh air.
The flaw in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is that it doesn’t accrue any particular power. It careens from one moment to the next with absolute glee, but the story doesn’t build. You’ll spend more time marveling at the film’s audacity than getting emotionally engaged with its characters, despite the best efforts of its game cast. Michelle Yeoh, most recently seen in “Shang Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings”, and Stephanie Hsu form a meaningful chemistry as a mother and daughter being pulled apart from each other by life, and their scenes together each touch the universal nerve of parent-child estrangement, but they work just as well in isolation as they do within the narrative The same goes for the film: You could pull out any ten-minute clip and be gobsmacked by the filmmaking on display, but you might not feel compelled to keep watching. The quick hits of pleasure are the point.
Strangely, this is one of the rare films that might have worked better as a TV show, when the expectation of emotional accrual isn’t present. It might seem like a strange comparison, but “Everything Everywhere All at Once” feels at times like a live-action Simpsons episode, in which the jokes come fast and furious, absurdity is layered on top of family drama, and the pop-culture references might go over your head, but it hardly matters because bewilderment is somehow part of its charm.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is in theaters now.