Surrealist multiverse action comedy/family drama blows the crowd away on SXSW Film opening night
There’s never been a movie quite like Everything Everywhere All at Once. And there may never be movie quite like it again. Given the movie’s premise, some version of it might exist in some divergent reality, somewhere, and it might be weirder and more delightful than this one. But that’s also kind of hard to imagine.
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, music-video makers whose last feature film was the defiantly weird Swiss Army Man, Everything Everywhere All at Once is simultaneously a kitchen-sink immigrant family drama, a surrealist comedy art project, a satire of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Pixar, a Hong Kong action movie, and a tender love story with echoes of Wong Kar-Wai. It’s true. This movie, which premiered to a packed house of cheering fans on opening night of the South by Southwest Film Festival, contains multitudes.
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Written by: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong
Running time: 132 mins
Michelle Yeoh, giving a career-defining performance in a career already full of them, plays Evelyn, a ordinary Chinese immigrant who operates a run-down California laundromat with her husband, played by Ke Huy Quan, who, shockingly, played “Short Round” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. During a dreary audit at a local IRS office, Evelyn discovers that she is, in fact, a sort of cosmic key who can prevent the imminent destruction of the multiverse. And from there, things get crazy. It’s the definition of a high-concept picture, the Matrix combined with The Butterfly Effect made by art-school students who’ve watched a lot of Monty Python and David Lynch. And damned if it doesn’t work great.
Yeoh and Quan are terrific as the leads, but equally as good are Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays a variety of supporting roles, and the previously mostly unknown Stephanie Hsu, who plays Yeoh and Quan’s daughter Joy. She comes in hot and more than holds her own with a variety of screen legends, giving the movie’s central relationships surprising depth and resonance.
But you can’t really talk about Everything Everywhere All At Once without mentioning the wacky multiverse conceit. Whereas Marvel is content with giving us three Spider-Mans and evil Dr. Strange, the Daniels imagine multiverse worlds where everyone has hotdogs for fingers, or a teppanyaki chef can learn the secrets of his cuisine from a raccoon named Raccacouie, who hides under his hat and sings songs with the actual voice of Randy Newman.
Then there’s the verse-jumping, where Evelyn (and other characters) can access the special abilities of their other multiverse selves by doing something statistically improbable. Therefore, you find people doing things like eating an entire stick of chapstick, stapling things to their foreheads, eating boogers, and sticking various things up their butts, all to give themselves special kung-fu moves. Quan performs a scene of martial-arts magic using a fanny pack that would make Jackie Chan take pause. Jenny Slate, who also shows up, hurls a Pomeranian like a projectile. An Everything Bagel is this world’s Tesseract.
And yet somehow this all makes sense, even the idea that the hot-dog fingers squirt mustard when people are aroused. The Daniels manage to ground all of this high-end nonsense in some very real talk about emotional commitment, family responsibility, and learning to love your children for who they are, not who you want them to be. It feels real and well-earned, quite a trick for a movie that’s also so silly and scatological.
The crowd at SXSW, for the first in-person movie the festival has screened since 2019, treated Everything Everywhere All At Once as though it were the Second Coming. It’s hard to say if the world at large will respond to it the same way. This is a strange movie, and it may have art-house limitations. Then again, A24, which has made huge hits out of odd projects before, is putting its full backing behind it. Michelle Yeoh is a global star with few peers. And you can’t discount the respectful attention the movie pays to Asian families, which could easily give it a huge global audience.
For now, this movie played huge in downtown Austin. Regular moviegoers 30 miles north might have a harder time with lesbian hot-dog fingers and singing raccoon chefs and rocks with googly eyes on them. But you never know. In the multiverse, stranger things have happened.