After watching Everything Everywhere All at Once, one thing is clear: The Daniels are over multiverses. I refer to the filmmaking team made up of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who made an unforgettable debut with 2016’s Swiss Army Man. Their second film is in a similar vein but far more ambitious, as they strive to transform the concept of parallel universes from a plot convenience of superhero movies to something expressive about the human condition, though you could argue Spider-Man: No Way Home was after the same thing. Whatever, there’s no denying that this martial-arts movie is the Being John Malkovich of our generation and a must-see for devotees of weird cinema like me.
The film begins at a Southern California Laundromat owned by Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and her sad-sack husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), who live in the apartment above the washers and dryers. On the way to an IRS audit one day, Waymond abruptly changes personality and informs Evelyn that an agent of chaos, namely their gay college-dropout daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is going around destroying all the universes parallel to theirs. This universe’s version of Evelyn is the best hope to stop the threat to the multiverse because she is all unfulfilled potential — Waymond says, “You are capable of anything because you are so bad at everything!” Using ridiculous means to access her alternate selves, Evelyn acquires her more accomplished alter egos’ skills as a movie star, a teppanyaki chef, a cleaning lady, a rock, a piñata, a sign spinner, a Peking opera singer, and a woman with sausages for fingers. She eventually learns that Joy has achieved all her destruction by building an everything bagel out of the nothingness and despair of existence, as well as salt, garlic, poppy seeds, and other ingredients. “The bagel is where we find peace,” says Joy.
Too silly? More is to come. In this movie, all the characters suddenly acquire kung fu proficiency at one point or another, which leads to the wackiest martial-arts sequences since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Waymond swings his fanny pack and takes down a team of security guards, the IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) leaps down a stairwell to attack Evelyn, and a cosseted dry-cleaning customer (Jenny Slate) uses her leashed Pomeranian like a chain mace, twirling the dog above her head and hitting Evelyn in the face with it. The fights are choreographed by Andy Le, who played the henchman in Shang-Chi, and he looks like a rising star as he has his stuntpeople use office equipment as weapons. A bigger budget might have helped us differentiate between the worlds, but the Daniels do a fine job of that nevertheless, rendering all the mayhem with incredible staging, from the animated interludes to the Hereditary-style flickering lights in the IRS office to the Wong Kar-Wai-like chiaroscuro in the subplot when movie-star Evelyn meets a rich, single Waymond.
Much like Scott Pilgrim, this film’s brilliance unfortunately becomes exhausting rather than invigorating. The movie is divided into a prologue and three parts, and it loses momentum noticeably in Part II (which is well toward the end of this 139-minute epic) as it tries to navigate its multiverse while keeping to its emotional beats. Joy’s desire to end all worlds comes from being continually pushed back in the closet by Evelyn, who’s afraid that her own aged father (James Hong) will die of shame if he learns the truth. This is great, especially since Curtis is funny as an auditor who’s hyperintense about her job, the 93-year-old Hong contributes some bracing line readings, and Quan — remember him as a boy in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies? — does some deft shifting among the various versions of Waymond. Even so, the Daniels can’t keep this from feeling overstuffed.
Yet if it doesn’t always succeed, Everything Everywhere All at Once’s failures are the failures of a crazy, brave film that seeks to expand the philosophy of martial-arts movies beyond the genre’s traditional Buddhist koans. Amid all the puerile gags about tax receipts and hot dogs, the Daniels are urging us to connect with the people in this world, and the hijinks somehow make their message strangely moving. It is a unique achievement.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan. Written and directed by The Daniels. Rated R.