I have rarely encountered a film more aptly titled than Everything Everywhere All at Once. The second feature film written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (cheekily billed as “The Daniels”) earns that accuracy through its densely complicated story, which posits a version of the existence where there are an infinite number of alternate realities, and a few intrepid individuals have developed the technology to skitter deftly between them. So the plot qualifies, but that’s not even the half of it. The film is similarly expansive and thorough in ideas, themes, visual invention, emotional scope, and performance particulars. Its wild ambition is thrilling, but ambition alone isn’t enough to make a movie successful if the filmmaking is lacking in craft. Everything Everywhere All at Once succeeds because it has been put together with consummate skill.
The film focuses on Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), who co-owns a laundromat with her chipper husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). They are embarked on a particularly stressful day that includes strained interactions with their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and Evelyn’s father (James Hong), a planned Chinese New Year party, and one of many meetings with an IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis, finally getting to do the sort of rambunctious comic character work that fills the directorial efforts of her husband, Christopher Guest). In the midst of this, Evelyn is visited by a person claiming to be from another reality, insisting she’s the one person who can save the multiverse itself from being destroyed. She quickly learns how to draw on the talents of alternate versions of herself, and the film escalates in ingenuous, twisty ways, like a rollercoaster that races through the looking glass in a funhouse hall of mirrors.
Kwan and Scheinert set themselves a monumental task. At times, there are dozens of different concepts competing for space. Then there’s the not insignificant requirement to keep the rules and guidelines of the animating premise clear throughout every new plot twist. The duo meet the challenge with impish aplomb. Importantly, they don’t settle for the narrative razzle-dazzle of wild adventures across the landscapes of overlaid existences. There is real feeling to the work. Even as the brainstorms of their fiction swirl to tsunami levels, the film stays firmly tethered to a piercingly honest consideration of family: husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and the multigenerational churn of repeated mistakes of misplaced, misapplied concern. In this, the directors benefit from splendid performances across the call sheet. Yeoh leads the way, joyfully showing immense range and depth of understanding, and she’s nearly matched by Quan and Hsu.
If Kwan and Scheinert occasionally indulge in juvenile humor that skirts bad taste, that is less a flaw than another marker of the film’s flouting of boundaries. If it’s about everything, then it’s about everything. Restraint is no virtue and is indeed likely to shortchange the whole endeavor. Everything Everywhere All at Once earns its adventurous sprawl. Let the toy box spill over so its spring-loaded contents can careen and ricochet all around the room. Everything knocked asunder will be worth it. The spectacle is just that delightful.