The best movies have to be movies. There’s no other way to tell their story. They are essentialist works where the very act of filmmaking is a necessity-driven fact of their being. The vision is specific. It just has to be filmed. That’s how it is with Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (collectively, “Daniels”) latest feature. It’s everything good about cinema, everywhere, all at once.
Daniels have made the ultimate science fiction comedy. Starring the great Michelle Yeoh, the film is worthy and celebratory of her works and contribution to cinema, and oh so much more. It’s always more. Taking the more approach to multiverses is tricky. Big business has decided those stories are, essentially, open portals for universes of wacky mismatched characters to enter into an otherwise normal world. Daniels understand that the alternative offers an infinite range of creative possibilities. What if, rather than having a normal movie with strange visitors from out of town, our main character is the one who moves through worlds, and doesn’t just move through them linearly, but through the endless permutations of all their possible lives.
Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang (the character belongs to her, and so does the movie) is a struggling parent and partner. Her family makes little income off their laundry service. Her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is coming into her own, embracing her sexuality, and stubbornly refuting her mother’s strict demands that she follow her path (after all, what is her model, but to toil away with little profit?). Evelyn is a caretaker. Her father, Gong Gong (James Hong) is late in his years and is holding the family together by a thread, by rigidly insisting upon the traditions of their culture, while his granddaughter liberates herself, as a means not only of teenage rebellion, but essential exploration of her identity. Lastly, Evelyn’s husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) tries to bring the troop together with frantic humor. Embarrassed by his family’s lack of finances and emotionally detached from his wife, who is just too busy and stressed to engage with him, on the surface he is a comedic foil, but under it all, he’s taking all the hits, and is personally unraveling.
It’s tax season and the family is tragically behind. Evelyn and her husband go to the IRS and hope for a kind extension. But then science fiction happens in the elevator. Her husband (now possessed by Alpha Waymond, from another universe) pulls out an umbrella to hide from the camera and gives her a simple dossier of her mission. Once she enters the IRS office, her life will change forever. She is given an earpiece and must act like this exchange has never happened. The paper she’s given lists a few simple commands: put on the earpiece, follow the directions, and you can jump between universes. There’s a silly catch of course. To “verse jump,” and engage with new worlds properly, the user must perform the most absurd, disgusting, or otherwise hilarious action imaginable.
The film then cuts no corners. It explores every hilarious possibility of Evelyn’s many lives. Her verse jumping coincides with her daughter’s own universe-expanding journey (both literal and interpersonal), and while it’s all an extended metaphor, the ridiculous fictional conceit is also given total good faith. What’s so touching is that Daniels always believe in their characters and give us every reason to do the same. By building distinct and ranging characterizations and incredibly funny alternative worlds in which they exist, it gives us an entire sweeping contextual relationship with everything the film is about to explore.
Daniels are gorgeous directors because they know what to do. A thrilling multiverse comedy isn’t enough. Everything Everywhere All at Once must also be an excellent martial arts film. It taps into our shared history of Michelle Yeoh’s work and understands everything about why she is one of the great action stars, and makes another argument to add to that legacy. It doesn’t just explore our understanding of her action filmmaking, also featuring a meta-universe where her character gave up laundry services and starred in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), of which this film feels like a progressive bridge of, in defining the genre possibilities of Asian-American cinema. In another universe everyone has hot dog sausage fingers — the film makes sure to explain, in an ode to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), that this is because sausage-fingered monkeys usurped the normal kind — but also uses this ridiculous outcome to create a portrait in which Evelyn enters a same-sex relationship herself (with an alt-universe version of her sworn enemy, a beleaguered IRS worker), as a means to help her understand her daughter. So, the comedy always means something and gives back to the film, the characters, and the audience. Another permutation still explores a noir-tinged Wong Kar-wai-ian filtered kind of loneliness. Yet another finds Evelyn as a chef in a play on Pixar’s 2007 animation Ratatouille, where the rats are replaced by raccoons who sit atop people’s heads and control their every action. There are several other very funny outcomes and you need to see them all for yourself.
Any lesser movie would falter under the weight of such illusions and boundless playfulness. Daniels never put a foot wrong. Everything they put into their creation achieves a directed effect. There isn’t any wasted time or purpose. The characters are fleshed out enough to understand them even when they are constantly shifting personalities, as multiple versions of themselves loop through their universes. It builds, and builds, and builds, and in three acts (titled Everything, Everywhere, and All at Once, naturally), it crescendos into an incredibly sweet and hard-earned climax that delivers both as a joyful crowd-pleasing finale and a dramatically pertinent denouement. No part of this works if another part fails. The good news is that every part works “all of the time” and does so cohesively. The entire movie is a smooth operation of blending many disparate parts into a beautiful mash that is always as funny as it is thrilling, and sometimes, genuinely moving.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is the only multiverse movie you need. Daniels have created a masterwork of riveting comedic storytelling. It’s not just the funniest movie you can see in theaters, but top to bottom, the best of all worlds: action, comedy, and high-concept storytelling have rarely arrived so sharply formed. Every instinct here is exactly correct. It’s the rarest of movies. It even lives up to that would-be clunky title: this film delivers everything, everywhere, all at once. Try describing any moment of plotting and it will sound like absurd hyperbole. No movie gets to do all that! No other movie gets to do any of that! Everything Everywhere All at Once gets to do something radically new, essential, and is as funny and thrilling as a trip to the movies has ever been.