Written and Directed by The Daniels, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert | 139 min | ▲▲▲▲△
If the Daniels aren’t a familiar filmmaking name to you, they have a rep as creative, unusual filmmakers. They’re maybe best known for a bizarre dark comedy, Swiss Army Man, the farting corpse movie with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. This follow-up is no less gob-smacking, though it’s maybe a bit more mature.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a wildly ambitious, comical science-fiction picture about multidimensional combat that ends up actually being about generational schism. I certainly didn’t think we’d get a film this year that serves as a bridge between Turning Red and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, but it’s here and it’s very much worth seeing.
The magnificent Michelle Yeoh is in the centre of this film, and after a 40-year career that took her from Hong Kong to Hollywood — she arrived in the west with the Pierce Brosnan 007 movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. This is her first lead role in an American movie.
She’s Evelyn Wang, running a laundromat and planning a birthday party for her aged father, Gong Gong (James Hong, a legend now in his 90s with 450 IMDB credits including Chinatown, Blade Runner, and Big Trouble In Little China). She’s also got a major tax problem that she needs to solve with an IRS counselor, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis in a wonderfully vanity-free performance). Her marriage to Waymond Wang (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, probably known best for having been Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) is on the rocks and her relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is strained, to say the least.
All of this is preamble to the shocking introduction of characters from parallel universes showing up in Evelyn’s, starting with an alternate version of her husband who executes a remarkable display of fanny-pack kung fu. Some 75% of the film seems to take place in the tax office and much of the rest in the laundromat, with brief inter-dimensional jaunts as Evelyn discovers that of all the alternate versions of herself, she’s the one who’s most unhappy for having done the least with her life. She also begins to understand that the cross-dimensional antagonist, otherwise known as Jobu Tapaki, is someone quite close to her.
The first act of this picture throws so much plot detail at us you’d be forgiven for struggling to keep up — all the rules of how to access the gifts of your alternate selves across the dimensions, for instance. The Daniels aren’t coy about paying homage to other movies in direct and indirect ways, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ratatouille, the work of Michel Gondry and any number of Wong Kar Wai films.
I’m less familiar with Michelle Yeoh’s body of work in China, but I’m guessing they reference a number of pictures from her filmography, too — many of Evelyn’s alternate selves are glamorous, successful, and brilliant martial artists, which comes in handy. Certainly moments from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are mined here.
Much of this is pitched at a dizzying pace, breathlessly edited, and flat out hilarious — it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in more than a year. It’s also more than a little exhausting.
However, what it does manage to achieve amongst the sci-fi hokum and swirling action sequences is more than a modicum of feeling. The movie is about Evelyn’s journey to meaning, recognizing what’s important in life, and exploring her own trauma and how it has transferred to her daughter — there’s that Turning Red connection again — and how she’s maybe taken for granted the love she has all around her, even in absurd realities where everyone’s fingers are hotdogs or a giant everything bagel could end reality as she knows it.
I’d wager this is one of the most unusual movies you’re likely to see this year, and multiple realities aren’t even the weirdest part of it.