IIn the music video for Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s six-time platinum smash, Turn Down for What, an unspecified force usurps the cymbals of co-director Daniel Kwan and actor Sunita Mani, forcing them to twerk, dagger and smash with such intense passion circling that they repeatedly blast you through the ground and into the next level of a high-rise condominium complex. This is a fitting summary of the wacky sense of humor in Kwan and co-director Daniel Scheinert’s new feature film Everything Everywhere All at Once, a metaphysical martial arts epic that sees a butt plug as a potential source of power and arm-length dildos as an acceptable substitute for sai knives. (Plus, Mani reappears as a Bollywood star in a movie-within-a-movie.)
But the early viral triumph of the filmmaking duo known simply as Daniels is now predictable, as it propels the viewer through physical space at enough speed to shatter their divisions, as if the Kool-Aid man were the whole spent the night banging fighter bombs and decided to update his catchphrase to “FUCK YEAH!”
Party time is over in Daniel’s hysterically ambitious latest film, which expands its scope from a single building to encompass the entirety of human history, spanning the breadth of the multiverse, and accepts a heavier set of emotional stakes. Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, Unstoppable), a Chinese-American immigrant/laundromat owner/last hope for all existence, hurls between realities with the raw kinetic energy of a trebuchet-launched boulder. Sometimes all she has to do is open a door to find herself in another iteration of her life, or walk backwards through bushes, or tap the bluetooth earbud-looking gizmos an ally gives her. Daniel’s delight in creatively collapsing the distance separating scenes, lines of dialogue, or even shots, an all-out offensive of frenetic camera movement and frenetic editing that compresses what feels like 12 hours of film into two and a half. And yet these often impressively wacky formal backflips land in a position of banal sentimentality, then chide anyone who resists the viscous flood of juice for their cynicism.
Like many middle-aged people with a frustrating professional record, a spouse (shrill-voiced Ke Huy Quan) they no longer have a relationship with, and a child (Stephanie Hsu) they don’t understand, Evelyn spends a lot of time branching out To imagine paths that could have taken her years. Her mind wanders in that direction during a meeting with the tax auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis, potty and gruff and human), who informs her that she has one last chance to get her shit together, at which point both the narrative and the lens breakage. As events progress in “normal” chronology, dizzying ricochets dart back and forth between planes of being. The office complex turns into a beat-up gauntlet with some of the most violent fight choreography in American cinema in recent years; Evelyn lands in a reef on Ratatouille with a hibachi raccoon; she and the auditor become lovers in a world where homo sapiens have hot dogs for their fingers and pianos have to be played on foot; As a movie star who lives a moody homage to Wong Kar-wai, she regrets lost love.
The Rick and Morty Fied spin on Jet Li vehicle The One can be exhausting, but there are many rewarding things. The problem begins with the painful hit-and-miss humor that oscillates between Douglas Adams absurdity (dimensional portal) and non-random random sequences. The secret to jumping between universes is to do something statistically unlikely, like eat lip balm or flip your shoes on the wrong feet. After a failed attempt, Evelyn is told “not weird enough,” an indicator of the saucer-eyed, freaky-for-itself attitude that sadly at times reminds of Natalie Portman’s wiggle dance in the Garden State.
The absolute seriousness required to get on board with the whimsical factor in the first hour or so becomes crucial to endure the second half’s frank affirmations. The fixation on alternate timelines ultimately stems from a contemporary fear that we are now in the darkest, reflected in a vague line of how one knows one’s neighbors these days. The bagel of doom and its tighter grip on Evelyn’s Gen Z daughter fly to the climactic declaration that there’s nothing worse than succumbing to the nihilism so hip with the next generation. Our only hope of recourse is to embrace all the love and beauty that surrounds us, if only we are present enough to see it. Those aren’t flawed ideas, and they’re delivered with more novelty here than in the comparatively candid indies, who peddle those same feel-good articles that any Sundance can muster. A subtitled conversation between rocks on a barren planet finds the Don Hertzfeldt touch of goofy profundity that the film searches for hours, but the screenplay then undermines its thin epiphanies by repeating them a few times to ensure the audience picked up the whole upswing.
While those of us who are less prone to sentimentality may say so from a distant position, Kwan and Scheinert deserve a measure of credit. They have constructed a large, elaborate, polished and detailed expression of a vision informed by an insane museum which they steadfastly refuse to stop following. It’s nice that we have two guys like this in the industry at a time marked by a aridity of visual distinction and personal authorship, and it’s hard to argue against the inevitability that many people will learn a lot from this massive piece film will benefit . Still, the Herculean effort to prove nothing less than the inherent value of life itself falls short, delivering little more than tweetable nuggets about how “we’re all small and stupid.” But as dazzling as this film’s whirlpools may rush through us at supersonic speeds, they still place us somewhere we’ve been before.