There are plenty of good reasons why someone who writes about movies won’t read other people’s thoughts until they’ve written their own. This may be to avoid being influenced one way or another by outside responses; this may be to ensure that you never plagiarize, even accidentally. But there’s also the practical-slash-emotional issue of coming across a description of a movie so perfect you know you can’t top it – like when I saw a Letterboxd review of Everything everywhere all at once refer to the film’s writer/director Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s aesthetic as “serious maximalism”.
Seriously, where do I go from here? Because if there is anything that stands out clearly from the two feature films of “Daniels”, this one preceded by the one from 2016 Swiss army man, sadly portraying Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse – it’s that they’re willing to do anything for more emotional gain than you might expect from their high-concept premises. So if I tell you that Everything everywhere all at once is a multi-universe action flick with a sense of humor that also made me want to burst into tears, isn’t that just a longer way of saying “serious maximalism”?
It begins with a particularly chaotic day in the life of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh). She prepares for an IRS audit of the laundry business she runs with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and throws a Chinese New Year party the same night, while trying to avoid revealing to her own father (James Hong) that his daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is gay, and facing Waymond’s revelation that he is unhappy in their marriage. But all of that takes a back seat when Waymond abruptly informs him that his body is being visited by a version of himself from an alternate timeline, and that Evelyn herself might be the key to saving all universes from a existential threat.
The “chosen” hero’s tale – with a process of our hero discovering a facility for badass kung fu, and accomplices in another reality tapping into remote bodies – certainly evokes The matrix, but that’s just a taste of Daniels’ crazy mix of movie references. They nod and wink at everything Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for Ratatouilleand from Stanley Kubrick to Wong Kar-wai, almost always in the service of a joke that pays off in a way more substantial than “hey, did you notice the movie we were referring to?”
Beyond their cinephilia, Kwan and Scheinert serve up a parade of non-stop motion and gags. The conceit by which Evelyn and others learn new skills from alternate universe versions of themselves – doing something incredibly improbable – lends itself to a nearly endless range of absurdities for filmmakers to visualize. . The alternate universes themselves may differ due to the high fashion costumes worn by the characters, or they may render the characters as versions of themselves that aren’t necessarily human, or possibly human but in a really weird way. Oh yeah, and then there’s the unique extended metaphor for the doomsday device that threatens the multiverse. Like the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team at their Plane! peak, the Daniels can’t land every punchline, but throw them at you so fast you can barely remember the misses.
If that was all Everything everywhere all at once had it all, it would still be a lot of fun. But it’s not, and it feels like these filmmakers are constitutionally incapable of presenting anything that’s only superficially entertaining. Basically, it becomes a quest to find out what really tears universes apart and what is possible through love, kindness and tolerance. And maybe it tells us what we need to hear to accept the one and only world – and version of people – that we have before us, instead of lamenting what we wish were different.
That final burst of sincerity flips the movie, and no doubt it will be somewhere between a little too much and a parcel too much for some viewers over 130 minutes. For those who dance to this particular rhythm – a delivery system for every possible emotional and genre note – it’s enough to make you want to create an entirely new vocabulary to describe it. Or have someone else create this vocabulary for you.