In one of the many martial arts showdowns that punctuate Everything Everywhere All at Once, a character adopts an unorthodox fighting stance: As she locks her body into place, her arms remain open wide, as if offering an embrace. Of all the images that one could use to sum up this alternately invigorating and enervating sci-fi action comedy, this may be the most apt. In evaluating Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s sophomore feature, it’s nearly impossible to separate pleasure from pain. Watching it is like being brutalized by good vibes, or trying to get a breath in edgewise while a pair of ambitious, well-intentioned filmmakers try to hug you to death.
The Daniels, as they prefer to be known professionally, are sticklers for details, and so is their protagonist. Introduced methodically sorting through piles of receipts in advance of an audit, Chinese-born dry cleaning proprietress Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a competent small businesswoman plagued by insecurities about language and vocabulary; she’s intimidated by the arcane syntax of tax law and fears she’ll misrepresent herself to the IRS. She’s also a micromanager, as evidenced by the attitude she takes toward her family, especially her 20-something daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who wears the sullen mask of a person resigned to being viewed through a parental microscope. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s almost parodically good-natured husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), grins through a self-effacing existence in which professional and domestic duties have become hopelessly intertwined: He’s more like an assistant (or an intern) than a partner.
In a superbly edited and choreographed opening sequence, the Daniels map the sprawling yet claustrophobic confines of the Wangs’ apartment-slash-laundromat—a boundaryless space that’s become more of a prison than a sanctuary, and whose future is very much at stake. They could be crafting a credible, realist drama about the high cost of living in contemporary America and the intergenerational anxieties of assimilated families. The setup juxtaposes Evelyn’s fractious relationship with her aimless, queer, and increasingly thin-skinned daughter against her status as the child of an elderly, strict, traditionalist father who’s been withholding his own approval for decades; arriving in town for his own birthday party, Gong Gong (James Hong) wields guilt and shame like a fine-edged blade.
Evelyn is being pulled apart, and the conceptual coup of Everything Everywhere All at Once is the way it hyperbolically amplifies its protagonist’s feelings so that this small story of one woman trying—and failing—to be all things to all people becomes a no-holds-barred action movie. Through a series of expositional episodes too complex to go through here, the film makes a quantum leap away from naturalism to reveal that Evelyn is—to paraphrase The Matrix, one of many movies being deliberately evoked by the filmmakers’ winking pastiche style—the One: a messiah figure oblivious to her skill set and destiny just waiting to be activated. The fate of the world—as opposed to merely a laundromat—lies in her realizing this, and in her unique, untapped ability to synaptically access a series of alternate personas drawn from a vast and unfathomable multiverse.
Context is key here, and so is casting. It’s one thing for Keanu Reeves’s Neo to mutter that he suddenly knows kung fu; it’s another when the star of The Heroic Trio, Holy Weapon, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon leans into her wuxia legacy and starts throwing hands. To the extent that it’s been produced as a love letter to Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once is extremely poignant, giving its 59-year-old star a chance to flex unexpected acting muscles while revisiting the high-flying fight choreography that made her a global icon back in the 1990s. Evelyn’s alternate lives are visualized in impressionistic flashes, and in one of them, Yeoh even plays a doppelgänger of herself—a high-rolling movie star attending glitzy premieres of her hits.
Each of these realities—and there are dozens of them—play as riffs on different kinds of movies, which makes sense: For many of us, moviegoing is a way to either imagine or immerse ourselves in other lives, which are usually more heightened than our own. There’s an incongruous humor to seeing Yeoh in so many different sliding-doors scenarios, but the script’s through line is pathos: No matter who she is at any given moment, Evelyn is haunted by the memories of paths left untaken. She’s also pursued across the universes by different versions of Waymond—an emblem, she believes, of her own compromises with mediocrity.
If Yeoh is the Daniels’ star attraction, Ke Huy Quan is their secret weapon. The former child actor who once played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Data in The Goonies—two seminal and legendarily problematic roles that helped define Asian representation for Gen-X audiences—ends up being the most inspired casting choice of the year. “We needed someone who could do the drama, do the comedy, [be] bilingual, maybe even trilingual, a martial artist, and then on top of that, be able to be convincingly dopey and sweet,” Daniel Kwan told Entertainment Weekly. After stumbling upon a GIF of Temple of Doom on Twitter, the director “started doing the math in [his] head. … What is that guy up to?”
What Quan is up to in Everything Everywhere All at Once turns out to be whatever his directors require—he’s a suave, soulful shape-shifter who oscillates between explaining the plot to Evelyn (and the audience) with mathematical precision and selling a bewilderment meant to mirror our own confusion in the face of so much accelerating, surrealist chaos. The unsigned divorce agreement that the original, forlorn version of Waymond carries from place to place is a thin document that takes on real weight—a pushover’s attempt to get his wife’s attention after he’s already decided it’s too late. But the most significant pieces of paper in the movie are Evelyn’s receipts, which, as Jamie Lee Curtis’s IRS agent notes, tell a story of their own. They’re marked with circular scribbles that recall the spherical symbolism of Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy, which, even more than The Matrix, seems to be the movie that the Daniels are chasing—a holy grail of wise-guy existentialism that’s also a case study in indie auteurs getting to play with a big budget.
“Congratulations, kid, you’ve reinvented the wheel,” Hudsucker’s bad guy kids to the holy-fool hero brandishing a blueprint for the Hula-Hoop. (Later on, he’ll pitch an idea for a frisbee.) The Coens’ great, cosmic joke is that the fine line between wisdom and nothingness is actually a circle, and the film’s proliferation of zeroes—the shape, we’re told, of the universe itself—keeps hammering it home. In addition to all those receipts, the Daniels contrive their own version of a perfect circle in the form of a giant, world-devouring everything bagel created by a demonic, interdimensional villainess who happens to be inhabiting the body of Joy—a conceit which gives Hsu a chance to dish out some enjoyably omnipotent carnage, including probably the first death-by-dildo in a mainstream studio movie.
The metaphor here is simple enough, and similar to the one recently deployed in Pixar’s Turning Red—a supernaturally endowed young adult pushing back against her family history to the point of almost destroying it. As the possessed Joy eventually explains (there is a lot of explaining in this movie), the bagel is a repository of all the pressures, frustrations, and disappointments she’s felt as her family’s black sheep; it’s everything, but mainly everything bad. The harder Evelyn strains against her progeny’s swirling vortex of nihilism and bad vibes, the more she comes to see the terrible logic in its design. Joy’s sorrows at never feeling good enough for her parents were once Evelyn’s own, which she’s never reconciled; as the film goes on, the irascible Gong Gong keeps adding to the weight on her already buckling shoulders. Why fight the good fight—against your father, against the IRS, against the cosmos itself—if the outcome is rigged to begin with? Isn’t it easier to just give in?
There was a similar tug-of-war between despair and resolve in the Daniels’ 2016 debut, Swiss Army Man, an ingeniously engineered and incessantly, borderline unnbearably whimsical fantasy about a marooned traveler who strikes up a friendship with a beached corpse that doubles as a grotesque projection of his own suicidal impulses. That film featured all kinds of scatological humor—postmortem erections; recycled bodily fluids; jet-powered flatulence—alongside a weirdly regressive, palpably millennial form of cinephilia. At one point, for no real reason, the characters lovingly re-create scenes from Jurassic Park using props they find around the island. The schoolyard humor remains here in the form of the aforementioned dildo beating, and also in a kung-fu fight featuring characters with objects jammed in their rectums. The pop-ecumenical frame of reference is also present, ranging from Wong Kar-Wai to Pixar.
The crude, juvenile goofiness of the Daniels’ style can make it difficult to fully appreciate their craft, but they have style to spare anyway. The filmmaking in Everything Everywhere All at Once is fast, fluid, and virtuosic. Like Swiss Army Man, with its lo-fi Spielberg homages, this follow-up feels built from the ground up out of evocative locations, athletic stunt work, and sublime costume design; even the stick-on googly eyes that serve as a key motif have a tactile quality that’s mostly missing in CGI spectacles. Son Lux’s score samples, integrates, and riffs on all kinds of pop ephemera, including a running aural gag involving Nine Days’ millennial hit “Absolutely (The Story of a Girl)” that gets funnier the less sense it makes. The film is also phenomenally well-edited by Paul Rogers, whose work keeps subdividing space and time without ever descending into incoherence. The cutting is amazing, and keeps the film’s everything-bagel aesthetic intact for almost two and a half hours.
There’s a difference between shooting your shot and emptying the chamber, and the question of whether Everything Everywhere All at Once needed to be an epic is worth asking. It’s possible that the Daniels are so in love with their own ingenuity—and the endearing malleability of their leading lady—that they simply couldn’t help taking things to the limit. The fake end-credits reel that hits midway through the film is a nifty structural joke (even if Adam McKay got there first in Vice) but the actual climax is dragged out in a way that goes beyond self-reflexive commentary. It’s simply too much, on every possible level. And yet it’s also not enough, because for all the seemingly complex, ambivalent emotions the Daniels are conjuring up—including some tough-minded ideas about the necessary sacrifices of parenthood—they’re unable (or unwilling) to leave any loose ends. They’re huggers, and they wrap everything up accordingly.
Having gone big with The Hudsucker Proxy—and after absorbing criticisms that they were precocious postmodernists—the Coens went home for Fargo and wound up with a back-to-basics masterpiece. At its best, Everything Everywhere All at Once suggests that even at this early stage in their careers, the Daniels can do it all. But it makes you wonder how they might do with less.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.