By Angelo Muredda
Eager to celebrate a theatrical box-office win, Variety recently praised the success of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s equally moving and galling Everything Everywhere All at Once, chirping that its broad appeal beyond arthouse crowds attests not only to adult audiences’ willingness to return to theatres for the right sort of movie, but also to the fact that “ticket buyers really love the concept of a multiverse.” Dubious as Variety’s audience-polling methodology might be, its characterization of the film as a timely non-Marvel alternative to multiverse mania captures something of the so-called Daniels’ preternatural savviness at branding. The former music video directors—who first branched into features with Swiss Army Man (2016), an absurdist drama about a suicidal man whose life is redeemed by a farting corpse—have already shown an enviable mastery of snappy loglines. What they haven’t yet done, however, is found a way to consistently temper their Barnumesque showmanship when the material at hand calls for sensitivity rather than absurdist non sequiturs.
Thus, while Everything Everywhere All at Once is a mature step up from the strained silliness of its predecessor, mining real feeling out of its stacked cast and granular specificity out of its milieu of fluorescent coin laundries and carpet-lined IRS offices, it’s still the undisciplined product of a pair of spitballing concept artists, who too often find themselves pitching their way out of hiccups in characterization and allegory and embracing the shiny allure of the new whenever the challenges of nuance become too much to bear.
The film stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang, a middle-aged laundromat owner whose only fleeting moments of respite from work, family, and taxes are when she catches a glimpse of a Bollywood musical on the TV above one of her machines. A workhorse careening from conflict to conflict, Evelyn is having an especially busy day as the film begins, her attentions divided between her IRS audit from officious pencil pusher Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis), the fresh arrival of her disapproving father (James Hong) from China, ongoing drama with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) over whether to out her to the family patriarch, and her strained marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), who is so gentle that he’s slipped her divorce papers without her noticing.
A way out of this knockabout day presents itself when her husband is abruptly possessed by a suave doppelgänger who calls himself Alpha Waymond. Evelyn, he explains, is the most unsuccessful and, paradoxically, the most important version of herself across a vast multiverse in which a villain named Jobu Tapaki—the dark Alpha doppelgänger for Joy, evidently broken by Alpha Evelyn’s helicopter parenting—threatens all existence. It falls to the mediocre Evelyn of our timeline to transcend her bad day and defeat her doubled daughter by mastering the zany minutiae of universe-hopping (or “verse-jumping”), visiting any number of roads not taken and borrowing the other Evelyns’ skills as martial artists, actors, and teppanyaki chefs as needed.
Yeoh anchors the often weightless, jokey experience of the film in her protagonist’s neuroses, tensing every muscle in her face when she refuses the Alphaverse’s assignment—defaulting to her usual brusque punchline of “Very busy today,” her version of Herman Melville’s Bartleby saying he would “prefer not to”—and softening as she becomes receptive to the other selves she might yet be. She gives a nervy, funny, vanity-free performance. Inasmuch as the film hangs together as anything more than a series of wacky action set pieces and asides that resemble Adult Swim interstitials, it does so primarily on the strength of its use of Yeoh as both an actor and an icon. Shaky when it’s world-building, the film is on more solid ground as an allegory about the versatility of multi-hyphenate performers such as Yeoh, a skilled dancer as well as an actress, martial artist, and stunt performer. Originally written for Jackie Chan, the role resonates better as a loving meta-commentary on the many lives of Yeoh, a flexible and enduring performer whose star is ascending in a new way, such that her presence can greenlight high-concept indie darlings, long after both her ingenue days and her international breakthrough in the late ’90s, with the US release of Supercop (1992) quickly followed by her turn as a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). It’s likewise a generous showcase for Quan (who starred in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom  and The Goonies ) emerging from a decades-spanning acting desert—broken up with work as an assistant director on Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004), incidentally—to play every strain of masculinity from Ned Flanders to Tony Leung.
Though it’s framed as humanist science fiction, with its Walmart realist settings and dumpy technology evoking the handcrafted world of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t all that invested in what it might be like to discover that one exists alongside thousands of versions of oneself. Unless we are to just accept the neoliberal logic that what you do is what you are, it’s never clear why Evelyn’s other selves are so defined by their professions and skillsets rather than the emotional and psychological changes accumulated through their choices.
Where the Daniels’ foray into allegory fails them is in the underbaked existentialist conceit behind the title. Alpha Waymond explains that Jobu’s reign of terror stems from Evelyn’s Alpha counterpart, who saw her daughter’s potential and pushed her beyond her limit into a nihilistic state in which she now believes that nothing matters because everything matters, nothing is possible because everything is possible, and so on. There’s an undergraduate philosophy-level ponderousness to this thematizing that isn’t helped by the filmmakers’ quintessentially millennial seriocomic affectations—Joy’s sassy aphorisms recall terminally online Twitter users referring to anything bad as a “dumpster fire,” or aloofly retweeting the “This Is Fine” meme (the anthropomorphic dog sitting down to coffee as the room around him is engulfed in flames).
Hsu is about as good as she can be at bringing some interiority to two versions of the same cipher, but the Daniels can’t seem to make up their mind about what the crushing too-muchness of life that she envisions, a bit cutely, as an everything bagel that sucks up all things, is supposed to signify. The way the traumatic pasts of many immigrant parents like Evelyn’s gets revisited upon the next generation? The hollow nihilism of twentysomethings? The anxieties of queer youth facing the climate catastrophe? The crushing everyday depression of realizing you are in a world far vaster than you? Or, as the title suggests, everything, everywhere, all at once—which, by Joy’s depressive logic, could just as easily be reframed as “nothing.”
This refusal to narrow down and commit to ideas, characterizations, and concepts rankles more as the film wears on, and as the filmmakers trade the cultural specificity and well-defined space of the first act for the free aesthetic play and bombastic montages of the third. There are visual delights here, to be sure—most notably a set piece that sees mother and daughter transformed into rocks in an otherwise uninhabitable universe, the former inching toward the latter to stop her from falling, physics be damned. At times, there’s even a productive tension between the filmmakers’ cloying instincts and the earnest emotional stakes the actors bring, as when Evelyn reconsiders Waymond’s way of being in the world, a turn that is instantly convincing thanks to the note of kindness and quiet dignity Quan invests in every Waymond: from his generosity to the laundry customers Evelyn despises, to his stoic resolve in the face of Evelyn the big-time movie star. By the end, though, the accumulating symbols and bric-a-brac, the random asides, and the stylized tangents feel less like purposeful design choices in a film about wrangling the universe into one big everything bagel than like tics from still-growing filmmakers utilizing the idea of the multiverse as their own Swiss army knife: an all-purpose tool to help wield whatever it is they’re selling now.
Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, USA