With their tender and rib-achingly funny sophomore feature Everything Everywhere All at Once, filmmaking duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert distill a heart-crushing domestic drama in loving and masterful collisions of high-octane kung-fu, mind-melting sci-fi, and wildly inventive fantasy.
In a few weeks, Marvel will do what it has learned to do so well in constructing a long-arch cinematic universe. A new installment of Dr. Strange will formalize and likely expand the multiversal obsession at the core of its current “phase,” and a couple of months later they’ll do it again with a fourth Thor movie that no one needs or asked for. Both films will inevitably break the box office. If they don’t, a Black Panther sequel unfairly tasked with filling the void and compensating for the grace lost in the death of the impossibly poised Chadwick Boseman will close out the studio’s 2022 film slate with what will surely claim the bag. If you’re sensing the presence of a thread between these films, you should. It’s by inglorious design — that over the course of nearly 20 years and two dozen titles (and who knows how many more on the block), the biggest (and arguably most profitable) studio on the planet refuses to tell a story that doesn’t bleed into another. But the comic book giant is no longer the lone purveyor of divergent, yet coexisting realities in cinema.
On April 8, Everything Everywhere All at Once cracked Marvel’s death grip on the multiverse wide open with a beautifully absurd epic of a scale that somehow exceeds its title. Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels), the film centers on Evelyn and Waymond Wang (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, respectively), a Chinese couple who chased their love and ambitions to the states only to be pulled apart by the all-consuming pressures of running a laundromat while raising their teen daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). The film presents a cosmic parable for the strife of first-generation immigrants, their splintered identities, and carrying the weight of all that. Portrayed coldly in some dimensions and tenderly in others by the outrageously great Yeoh and Quan, the Wangs embody a painfully normal vision of uniquely American ideals. They struggle to keep their business afloat while navigating an adopted culture and all of the nuances that can get lost in transition.
The bulk of the film takes place in different variations of an IRS office in Simi Valley, where The Wangs endure an audit that quickly pivots from an investigation of their finances to a multi-dimensional interrogation of every choice they’ve ever made. As the Wangs brace for their appointment with Jamie Lee Curtis’ delightfully demonic IRS agent Deirdre, a version of Waymond beams in to awaken Evelyn’s metaphysical self with a pair of Bluetooth headsets pulled straight from your drunk uncle’s arsenal of antiquated consumer electronics. Waymond alerts a version of his wife of an imminent evil sweeping the multiverse, sending Evelyn in and out of lives never lived to borrow the abilities of people she’s only dreamed of being. Evelyn’s initiation into the resistance serves as the tab hitting the tongue in a film that treats the multiverse as an infinite and instantly accessible spectrum of ambitions fleshed out and furnished with their own respective memories, regrets and, in some cases, physics. As threats to family, marriage, and business intensify in her native reality, Evelyn increasingly leans on her alternate selves and taps into their strengths, whether that’s borrowing a bit of martial arts mastery from a version of herself that became a Chinese film star, or expanded lung capacity from a variant that became the opera singer she always wanted to be.
That barely scrapes the surface of the interplay between Evelyn’s countless forms and the army of self she recruits. But it’s in these moments that Everything Everywhere All at Once distinguishes itself from the myriad recent attempts at cinematic storytelling in fractured realities. Other selves don’t interact as much as they interface, allowing them to feed each other while respecting the boundaries between them. It’s also novel how little time is spent explaining the math behind this trans-dimensional feat. Daniels are perfectly aware of just how many twisted worlds they’ve created and how difficult it would be to track any of them with thorough backstories. But instead of wasting space on exposition in what is already a near three-hour film, we’re provided with some footnotes that very effectively guide the theatrical experience of many lifetimes without tacking on empty minutes. Not to bring this back to the big guy but there are entire films dedicated to outlining the MCU’s metaversal mechanics (looking at you, Eternals). That Daniels were able to tell a story so complete and self-contained across so many pocket universes is one of the film’s most significant (and hopefully, standard-setting) wins.
And frankly, it’s the power of an all-pro ensemble and a script that demands dynamism from its cast that holds it all together. Yeoh threads a victory lap performance with unmatched elegance and poise. Quan brings a Chaplin-esque charm to a nebbishy time-and-space traversing hero you’d be tempted to call a sidekick. Hsu embodies menacing Gen Z anxieties with a honed and magnetic mania. And James Hong, the 93-year-old vet who plays Evelyn’s embittered father Gong Gong, steals more than his share of scenes (even as the singular source of so much of the Wangs’ intergenerational trauma).
As the multiversal mythos moves past the courting phase and into a state of reluctant (and, at times confusing) embrace by pop culture, the newly-minted narrative framework is in dire need of some levity. Everything Everywhere All at Once delivers precisely that and so much more, distilling a heart-crushing family drama in loving and masterful collisions of high-octane kung-fu, mind-melting sci-fi, and wildly inventive fantasy. The result is equal parts the best episode of Rick & Morty you’ve ever seen, and a subversive superhero film with no three-point landing that even Scorcese might vouch for. Everything Everywhere All at Once breaks realities and reassembles them, while unearthing the trying and extraordinary details of a conventional life with a chaotic collage that will inspire second and third viewings well before the credits roll.