Daniels mix the infantile with the infinite to profound result
This review contains mild spoilers for Everything Everywhere All At Once, a multisensory film experience which is itself virtually unspoilable.
When you peer into the abyss, what do you see? When confronting the consequences of eternity, will you choose nihilism, or love? Also, what would it be like if you had hot dogs for fingers?
Unshackled writers/directors/producers Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) ask all of these questions and many more in the brilliant, absurd, and powerfully emotional Everything Everywhere All At Once, which blew the lid off the Paramount Theater as the opening night film of SXSW 2022. This multiverse-spanning emotional sci-fi epic brings us a narrative so uniquely personal, so brilliantly cast, and so batshit crazy (whilst simultaneously focused and sophisticated), one could have trouble worrying about the state of cinema today if something like this can still come into existence.
The absolutely legendary Michelle Yeoh captivates in a performance unlike anything we’ve ever seen before from her (and which could only have been played by her) as Evelyn Wang, a Chinese immigrant who’s struggling to relate to her adult daughter (a brilliant Stephanie Shu as Eleanor), avoiding her relationship with her kind and skittish husband (Ke Huy Quan, whom I’ll get to in a minute), kowtowing to her demanding and aging father (James Hong AKA he of 449 acting credits on IMDb), and desperately attempting to finish filing the taxes on their family laundromat business to appease their vindictive tax auditor (A revelatory Jamie Lee Curtis). She also may be the only person across thousands of universes who can put a stop to a chaotic force destroying the fabric of reality and she’ll have to tap into every single version of herself across space-time to do it.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is not a film that will speak to everybody. Daniels are creative wrecking balls whose signature style is to introduce infantile humor into their narratives and smash that immaturity up against profound meditations on love and existentialism. The constant boner jokes of their previous film Swiss Army Man, or the revelation of just how Dick Long died in Scheinert’s The Death Of Dick Long, or EEAAO’s aforementioned hot dog fingers are all plot points that are simply so absurd and juvenile as to be off putting to likely many potential viewers. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I want filmmakers to craft divisive works, and I understand film viewers who might be turned off by Daniels’ “potty” humor. It’s just that these two visionaries have an equally profound handle on the human experience and imbue their creations with impossibly relatable struggles, questions, fears, and small victories. I know I’ve never seen a film before featuring meticulously choreographed kung fu battles where secret powers are only unlocked through the insertion of a butt plug and where I also wept for 30 straight minutes meditating on the profundity of choosing kindness amidst the chaos of this planet.
Yeoh’s Evelyn is a protagonist for the ages, an aging Chinese immigrant whose life is chaotic and whose regrets are eating away at her. We never get protagonists like this, and the ease with which Daniels create a diverse tale that taps into universal themes puts to shame the idea that white people are essential to relatability in the casting of a film. Yes, Evelyn’s laundromat life is very specific, but the intergenerational struggles of a woman fighting to appease the demands of her father, wrestling with accepting the homosexuality of her daughter, and trying not to resent the squirrely, push-over nature of her husband, all while getting the finances in order? These are the kinds of things the human beings of 2022 are struggling with. And so, when an interdimensional traveler taps into her husband Waymond’s body and tries to convince her that she’s the main character in a grand, sweeping multiverse conspiracy, well… who wouldn’t want to get caught up in that kind of intrigue and excitement when the alternative is endless mundanity?
Evelyn’s quest, though, is inexorably tied to the phenomenal cast of characters Daniels assembled for this film. For those among us who grew up in the 1980s, Ke Huy Quan might not be a household name, but he’s the beloved Short Round from Temple Of Doom and Data from The Goonies. Quan’s acting gigs dried up as he grew up, but he kept working behind the camera and makes a triumphant return for the ages here that is so personally moving to me. I have genuinely loved him in both of those child star roles for as long as I can remember, and while Temple of Doom has its problems, Short Round has to be one of my favorite kid sidekicks in all of cinema history. Quan is called on here to play a pushover, a dashing romantic lead, and a dimension-hopping martial arts master, and to swap between them at the drop of a hat. His Waymond is the beating heart of this movie. The rock on which Evelyn has built the life she resents. And Waymond’s monologue about kindness set me to blubbering, which didn’t cease until the end credits rolled. Equally crucial is Stephanie Hsu as Eleanor. It ultimately all comes down to Eleanor and her fraught relationship with her mother. In this multidimensional showdown, Evelyn and Eleanor will face off as developing super beings who clash across space and time to either careen into destruction or reconcile by putting aside the intergenerational and cultural anxieties and acknowledging that nothing matters, even though EVERYTHING matters.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is aptly named, and while it’s frenetic, laden with tonal whiplash, and absurd beyond measure, it’s also confident, never sways off course, and is somehow tightly controlled and focused. With a narrative so unwieldy as this, it honestly shows Daniels’ mastery of their craft that they’re able to deliver such a profound and entertaining work of brilliance. I can’t imagine I’ll see a film this year at SXSW, or all year long, that speaks more directly to my cinematic sensibilities (sci-fi kung fu that makes me weep?!) or inspires more reflection on my own life and the ideas that keep me going than Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Nothing matters. So be kind.
And I’m Out.