Who said there are no more fresh ideas? Daniels, short for the directing duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, certainly didn’t. They’re a weird combo, two knuckleheads who have a distinct and irreverent style, yet their work feels amorphous and infinitely imaginative. They’re perhaps most famous for their feature-length debut, Swiss Army Man (2016), a bizarre comedy whose sophomoric humor disguised its inner heart and sincerity. But the ways in which that film aimed to bend the rules of filmmaking were just an appetizer for the main course in front of us. The duo’s latest, Everything Everywhere All At Once, is a Sci-Fi/Martial Arts/Comedy-Drama about the stock we must take as we evaluate our life. It’s one of the most fun films anyone will experience this year, and it may end up being one of the best films of the decade.
Michelle Yeoh, often an underappreciated supporting actor, takes a starring role here. She throws a heater as Evelyn Wang, an erratic middle-aged woman who co-owns a fledgling Laundromat with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan in perhaps the comeback of the year). She has to prepare documents for an audit for her business while dealing with a tenuous relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, in an awesome turn) as Evelyn disapproves of Joy’s same-sex relationship. The tension between the two leads Joy to skip out on accompanying Evelyn to the audit, complicating the language barrier between Evelyn and a brusque IRS Inspector (Jamie Lee Curtis), as Evelyn is much more comfortable speaking in Mandarin.
The stress Evelyn puts on her family begins to even show in her marriage when she learns it isn’t nearly as solid as she expected. But then, out of the blue, Evelyn is visited by someone who should seem familiar but may actually be from a different space and time. They tell her that some dire dilemma of universal consequence is going on, and only she can be the one to stop it. Unfortunately, Evelyn, aghast at this brave new world she’s introduced to, can’t seem to comprehend she has any latent talents necessary to solve this potential multiverse bending event. But she’ll prove to be very wrong.
It’s hard to draw exact parallels to other films, but the movie is partially a strange cross between The Matrix, Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, Big Trouble in Little China, and Kung Fu Hustle. But make no mistake, this is a new flavor of the many genres it occupies, taking comfort ingredients we know to brew a stew that is a one of one. It’s also the first movie where the audience is invested in who can successfully put an egg plug inside of them… er, but that’ll make more sense in context.
The cinematography is a blend of the familiar and the bizarre, utilizing Daniels’ unique physicality and editing. In fact, this is probably one of the most well-edited movies in recent memory and must have been a pain in the ass to do so in post-production. The rapid-fire visual medley is an assault on the senses, and the film’s action set pieces, and sight gags help forward the plot while also making up much of the film’s humor. Again this is a style that Daniels has been working on perfecting for years. A good sense of the film’s absurdist fluidity can be traced back as early as the music video for the DJ Snake/Lil Jon collab Turn Down For What, also directed by Daniels:
But these insane elements are held together by a strong story, a family drama about how one’s refusal to change is what holds our relationships hostage. While these characters are flawed, it is difficult to determine what characteristics they should learn to love and what they should grow beyond. Evelyn is pretty unforgiving at times towards Joy, judging her relationships, her weight, and her outlook on life. What is harder for Evelyn to voice is that Joy’s messiness reminds her of herself. Yeoh is excellent here, but Hsu is potentially a star in the making. She has to weave through many personality traits, most of which are combative to Yeoh’s energy, and it’s accomplished expertly. Meanwhile, Quan is the film’s heart, as his Wayland illuminates Evelyn’s blindspots and helps to complete them. It’s a gorgeous trio that makes the film sing with emotion.
The story has a strong roster of memorable characters. You know the movie is loaded when vets like Jamie Lee Curtis and James Hong are batting cleanup in great performances, turning small roles into some of the movie’s best moments. However, it’s probably an easy sell for actors to let loose and buy into the movie’s zany energy.
As we learn more about what Evelyn can and can’t do with her newfound knowledge, the movie gets quite clever with how she draws upon her many talents. But in doing so, the story showcases the many avenues that Evelyn could have driven down, leading her to question everything about her life. But regret can be poisonous when analyzing your choices. The film uses regret to interrogate the philosophy that is necessary to find true peace and happiness. A character remarks about Evelyn “When she does something weird, it helps her fight, it makes her powerful!” It’s a throwaway line that speaks to the movie’s funny and offbeat energy, but it plants the seeds for how these conflicts can be resolved.
The film begins to offer multiple perspectives on fighting strategies, one in particular drawing similarities to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. This combats the nihilism of the antagonist, as well as the overbearing aggressiveness of Evelyn. The film aims to determine the right approach to conflict resolution, and what it settles upon helps alleviate the existential crisis of our seemingly pointless existence.
It’s that sense of philosophy mixed with action, drama, and comedy that makes this an instant entry into the pantheon of great fantasy films. This is a live-action Fantasia, providing the highs associated with big blockbusters while harboring a small-film soul. That makes this a must-see, taking the audience on a roller-coaster ride of sight and sound. An incredibly weird movie and that’s its superpower.