Perhaps the strangest thing about Everything everywhere all at oncea film in which a notable plot point involves riffing on 2001: A Space Odyssey to explain an alternate reality where humans have developed finger hot dogs is that it is sometimes is not it feel weird. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, it sits at the intersection of frenetic music video marathon, martial arts slapstick comedy, and surreal sci-fi pastiche. But it’s steeped in serious family drama that’s enhanced by a string of great performances, particularly from central star Michelle Yeoh.
There’s a lot going on in Everywhere, but the main thing is simple. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) is the harassed owner of a failing laundromat and leads a messy and unfulfilling life. Her seemingly milquetoast husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) has served her with divorce papers, her perpetually demanding father (James Hong)’s health is failing, and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is frustrated by Evelyn’s own snippy disapproval. A ruthless IRS employee named Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) vets her for, among countless other questionable rulings, claiming a karaoke machine as a tax expense.
Then, as Evelyn makes a last ditch attempt to save her business, Waymond’s body is suddenly possessed by a counterpart from one of the near-infinite alternate realities. He tells her that she is the only person capable of saving the multiverse from a reality-destroying threat. And she still has to pay her taxes.
As alt-Waymond acknowledges, the precise mechanics of the multiverse are complex and not always logical. Verse-jumpers can use headphones to puppet the bodies of their other selves, and they can osmosis the skills of their otherworldly counterparts by performing crucial actions that set their lives on different paths. (For some unexplained reason, most of these tasks are painful or gross, like getting paper cut or eating lip balm.) The process opens up a slight psychic bond between counterparts, and for verse jumpers who push each other too far, understanding this range of infinite possibilities can lead to a devastating existential crisis.
The setup gives Kwan and Scheinert a chance to flip between a slew of mini-narratives and a truly dizzying array of colorful costume changes, and it justifies a series of eccentric martial arts sequences that essentially operate on dream logic. Everything is everywhere the fight scenes are more entertaining, more creative, and better shot than those in many full-fledged action films, including those in the heavily cinematic franchises it clearly draws upon. (They’re way more fun than almost anything in the Marvel movies made by the Russo Brothers, who served as producers here.)
Yeoh’s main self is a perfect confused woman who can suddenly pull off incredible acrobatic feats tempered by wacky physical comedy, while her other characters showcase her effortless charisma. Quan fluctuates fluidly between his hapless prime-universe self and his hyper-competent alter-ego, with both tone and body language shifting in split-second transitions. Even Curtis, portrayed as a sly bureaucrat, takes a menacing turn in one of her many personas.
Everywhere is full of complex connections and Chekhov weaponry that are more aesthetically cohesive than narrative. He constantly returns to create expanded multiverse vignettes from minor details earlier in the film, including jokes ranging from light to quite crude. (It’s a good time to mention that Kwan and Scheinert also made Swiss army mana movie that starred Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse.) A few of these callbacks seem alien, and based on a Q&A session after the SXSW movie premiere, that’s after at least one subplot was left on the cutting room floor. But they help sell the film’s humor by spinning movie references and throwaway gags – and if you put, like, all on a bagel, man – in deadpan scenes delivered with visual flair.
The dramatic elements don’t always add up. Everything is everywhere sci-fi sequences can be written as if marking time between nonsense, peppered with explanatory dialogue that doesn’t merge with the more compelling, naturalistic exchanges elsewhere. The script is replete with monologues about life and humanity that sound great in isolation but are blended together as abruptly as the film’s costumes, asserting character motivations that weren’t well established until this point.
Even so, the relationship between Evelyn, Joy, Waymond and (unexpectedly) Deirdre turns into something sweet that remains. fair a hair’s breadth away from being disgusting. Everything is everywhere the individual characters are largely archetypes, albeit ones not often seen in mainstream science fiction films. But the film treats them as complementary facets of one complicated person rather than a plethora of separate entities. There’s no cheap ambiguity about whether any of the movie’s events happen – the multiverse definitely exists, and it contains people whose fingers are definitely hotdogs – but its range of worlds has the fantasy vibe that highlights core aspects of the characters, making it more than gimmicks or quirks for fun.
This is perhaps less to the script than to the casting, which brings coherence to the most absurd scenarios. Quan gives Waymond a resilient vulnerability that manifests even when he pulls Evelyn into the multiverse. While Hsu gets less screen time as a character from the original universe, she balances being viciously nihilistic and hopelessly lost as Joy’s alter ego. Deirdre is legitimately mean, but – like many real-world assholes – capable of kindness and affection.
And in a film evoking countless previous movies about disgruntled losers who discover they’re secretly heroes, Yeoh delivers a poignant and magnetic take on the trope. Its protagonist is disillusioned with life but remains a mature, functioning human being surrounded by imperfect but ultimately decent people. Evelyn’s plunge into the multiverse is heralded by the way she navigates her multi-generational, multilingual family, her rapid dialogue switching between Mandarin, Cantonese and English. One of Everything is everywhere making jokes is that its protagonist is literally the least talented possible version of herself, but Evelyn’s self-gaps never seem shocking – you might believe a few decisions separate a beleaguered laundromat owner from a chef or an opera singer.
For all the weird stuff that gets thrown in Everywhere, Arguably Kwan and Scheinert’s riskiest move is choosing a running time of nearly 140 minutes for a comedy built around deliberate tonal whiplash, a potentially polarizing style of humor and exhausting pacing. . Everywhere is a giant tangled ball of yarn from a movie, and if it doesn’t work for you, that feeling will last a long, long time. If it Is work, however, it might just be one of the most charming and ridiculous movies you see this year.
Everything everywhere all at once debuts in theaters March 25