In the music video for Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s sextuple-platinum banger Turn Down for What, an unspecified force possesses the pelvises of co-director Daniel Kwan and actor Sunita Mani, compelling them to twerk, dagger and gyrate with such intense ardor that they repeatedly blast through the floor and into the next level of a high-rise apartment complex. This is an OK summary of the waggish sense of humor at play in Kwan and co-director Daniel Scheinert’s new feature Everything Everywhere All at Once, a metaphysical martial arts epic that sees a butt plug as a potential source of power and arm-length dildos as an acceptable substitute for sai knives. (Also, Mani pops back up as a Bollywood star in a film-within-the-film.)
But the early viral triumph from the film-making duo known simply as Daniels is most predictive in the way it thrusts the viewer through physical space with enough velocity to shatter its divisions, as if the Kool-Aid Man had spent all night pounding Jägerbombs and decided to upgrade his catchphrase to “FUCK YEAH!”
Party time is over in Daniels’ hysterically ambitious latest, which expands its scope from a single building to the entirety of human history splayed across the full breadth of the multiverse, and accepts a weightier set of emotional stakes to match. Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, unstoppable), a Chinese American immigrant/laundromat owner/last hope for all existence, slingshots between realities with the raw kinetic energy of a boulder launched by a trebuchet. Sometimes, she need only open a door to find herself in another iteration of her life, or walk backward through bushes, or tap the Bluetooth-earpiece-looking gizmos an ally gives her. Daniels delight in creatively collapsing the distance that separates scenes, lines of dialogue, or even shots, an all-out offensive of careening camera movement and frenetic editing that condenses what feels like 12 hours of movie into two and a half. And yet these often impressively nutso formal backflips land in a position of pedestrian sentimentality, and then upbraid anyone resisting the viscous flood of sap for their cynicism.
Like many middle-aged people with a frustrating professional standing, a spouse (reedy-voiced Ke Huy Quan) they’ve forgotten how to relate to, and a child (Stephanie Hsu) they can’t understand, Evelyn spends a lot of time imagining the branching paths her years could have taken. Her mind wanders along these lines during a meeting with the tax auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis, paunchy and harsh and humane) informing her that she has one last chance to get her shit together, at which point both the narrative and lens fracture. As events progress in the “normal” chronology, dizzying cross-cuts flit between planes of being. The office complex turns into a beat-‘em-up gauntlet with some of the fiercest fight choreography of recent vintage in the American cinema; Evelyn winds up in a riff on Ratatouille with a hibachi raccoon; she and the auditor become lovers in a world where homo sapiens have hotdogs for fingers and pianos must be played by foot; as a movie star living out a moody Wong Kar-wai homage, she rues lost love.
The Rick and Morty-fied spin on Jet Li vehicle The One can be exhausting, but plenty of rewarding things are. The trouble starts with the painfully hit-and-miss humor, vacillating between Douglas Adams absurdism (an everything bagel made literal threatens to swallow all of creation in its infinite void), sophomoric schoolyard yuks (forming the classic hand-vagina opens an inter-dimensional portal), and aren’t-I-random non sequiturs. The secret to hopping between universes is doing something statistically improbable, like eating Chapstick or putting your shoes on the wrong feet. After a failed attempt, Evelyn is told “not weird enough”, an indicator of the googly-eyed kooky-for-its-own-sake attitude at times unfortunately reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s wiggle dance in Garden State.
The absolute earnestness required to get on board with the quirk factor in the first hour or so becomes crucial to stomaching the open-hearted affirmations of the latter half. The fixation on alternate timelines ultimately comes from a timely-ish anxiety that we’re now in the darkest one, evident in a vague line about how no one These Days knows their neighbors. The bagel of doom and its tightening grip on Evelyn’s Gen Z daughter lend themselves to the climactic declaration that there’s nothing worse than submitting to the nihilism so trendy with the next generation. Our lone hope of recourse is to embrace all the love and beauty surrounding us, if only we’re present enough to see it. These aren’t faulty ideas, and they’re delivered here with greater novelty than in the comparably sincere indies peddling these same feel-gooderies every Sundance can muster. A subtitled conversation between rocks on a barren planet locates the Don Hertzfeldt note of goofy profundity the film spends hours searching for, but the script then undermines its thin epiphanies by reiterating them a few times to ensure the audience has soaked in all the uplift.
While those of us less susceptible to sentimentality may give it from a position of remote detachment, Kwan and Scheinert deserve some measure of recognition. They’ve constructed a large, elaborate, polished and detailed expression of a vision informed by a demented muse they staunchly refuse to stop following. It’s nice that we have two guys like this in the industry during a period characterized by a drought of visual distinction and personal authorship, and it’s hard to argue against the inevitability that a lot of people will get a lot out of this massive hunk of movie. All the same, the herculean effort to prove nothing short of the inherent worth in life itself comes up short, yielding little more than tweetable nuggets about how “we’re all small and stupid”. However dazzling the vortexes this film shoots us through at supersonic speed may be, they still deposit us somewhere we’ve been before.