Monday, March 21, 2022

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a great balance of the sprawling, the intimate, and the bizarre

If you saw Swiss Army Man, the last movie from the directorial duo Daniels (comprised of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), then you know what to expect from their work. They do things weird. Not just weird as defined by mainstream corporations, oh no. They're the kind of weird that gazes upon Daniel Radcliffe and see's a farting corpse whose erections can function as a compass. Their weirdness is also laced with sincere melancholy, they're anarchic pranksters who also want to touch your heart. Their strangeness and unexpected sweetness are more apparent than ever in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is guaranteed to either confuse or, if you're like me, dazzle. 

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a busy person. She's got to run her laundromat perfectly while dealing with demands from the IRS that could endanger her livelihood. All the while, her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is grappling with falling out of love with his partner, to the point he's preparing to serve Evelyn divorce papers. Evelyn's relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is even more strained than that. This is already a lot to juggle for one person, but a trip inside an elevator leads Evelyn to discover the existence of a multiverse. There are countless alternate dimensions out there and a seemingly ordinary woman is being called upon to stop an evil force that could destroy everything in existence.

What follows is something that has the subversive streak of The Matrix Resurrections, the high-concept melancholy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the unpredictability of Xavier: Renegade Angel. The result is a strange brew that proves shockingly effective at managing to have heart and chaotic energy. Sometimes, such a potent mixture can be chalked up to something deep and academic. There’s real detail to how Daniels is executing this madness, but the reason Everything Everywhere All at Once can swerve from buttplug gags to poignancy without coming as disjointed simply comes from the character of Evelyn. Her plight and mindset are always front and center in the madness. She’s like the lighthouse, providing a constant sense of light that the viewer can turn to in the middle of an onslaught of strange imagery. 

Even more critical to making the absurd concoction work so well is how Daniels embrace every possible visual opportunity that the multiverse provides. Evelyn and the viewer travel everywhere from classic kung fu movies to a prison movie to a hand-drawn realm that looks like it was scribbled by a kindergartener. Who needs airtight logic or constant coherency when there are many nifty interpretations of reality to explore? The creativity on display is incredible, especially the little details (like the lenses used and the aspect ratios) to differentiate the various universes. Rather than just tinting the frame a slightly skewed shade of blue and calling that a unique dimension, a vast array of costumes and color schemes are employed to suggest the infinite possibilities out there for multiverse mayhem.

 It’s doubly impressive that Everything Everywhere keeps this rambunctious ambiance up for its entire routine without either running on fumes or wearing out the viewer. Just when I thought I had this movie figured out, a new ace up its sleeve would get revealed. Especially fun is how seemingly throwaway gags tend to keep coming back for not only humorous extensions but also reinterpretations that make the ludicrous emotionally potent. In what turns out to be an apt parallel to the characters themselves, the silliest parts of this motion picture have a lot more depth to them than you’d ever expect. 

All those layers upon layers of details are handled with mastery by the principal actors. Each of these performers seems to be relishing the chance to play not just one character but a whole slew of people wrapped up into fleshy humans. Michelle Yeoh, for instance, is already a hoot as an everyday human being who quickly finds herself out of her depth. However, once the multiverse absurdity begins to get unleashed, she reaffirms both her long apparent gift for hand-to-hand skirmishes and moments of intimate poignancy. Ke Huy Quan especially excels at lending authenticity to each side of his character, playing personalities that echo John Wick and Jimmy Stewart with consistent believability. Stephanie Hsu gets both the most tender moments and greatest costumes in her performance, while the always delightful James Hong adds another unforgettable acting credit to his endless resume.

Watching something as bursting with imagination as Everything Everywhere All at Once for the first is an incredible experience, especially when viewed on a gigantic screen that consumes your entire gaze and with an appreciative crowd. Even with an avalanche of modern pop culture items about the movies out there, Everything Everywhere All at Once stands out from the crowd. Impressively, it accomplishes this by delivering gags and action beats that couldn't exist outside of the multiverse concept...and also by using this multiverse notion as merely a springboard for larger ideas and emotions. Prepare for something special when you sit down to watch Everything Everywhere All at Once and also to never be able to look at either paper clips or raccoons the same way ever again.

Everything Everywhere All At Once plays in limited release on March 25 and expands into theaters everywhere on April 8.

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