Everything Everywhere All at Once Review: Failure Becomes Triumph in This Cinematic Cacophony
With 2016's Swiss Army Man, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as "Daniels," delivered audiences one of the most unconventional, ambitious, exuberant, and life-affirming films of the 2010s, made all the more impressive given that one of its main characters was a farting corpse. The duo has returned to deliver Everything Everywhere All at Once, yet another experience that seemingly defies distinction, yet feels as though it could only come from the minds of such a filmmaking pair and, once again, has completely blown away all preconceived notions of what can be accomplished in a multiversal tale of regret and second chances. In this world they have created, audiences are reminded that there's no point in holding onto regret in a reality when you're not afforded a do-over, while also reminding us that every challenge we face is an opportunity to make the most out of life, with the most life has to offer being the bonds we forge with everyone we come into contact with.
Between strained family relationships, a failing business, and a number of dreams that never became a reality, to say Evelyn's (Michelle Yeoh) life has disappointed her would be a bit of an understatement. In a bizarre and enlightening encounter, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) breaks home his meek attitude and alerts her to the existence of multiple universes and multiple versions of themselves, each one representing a different path their lives could have taken had they made different decisions. Thanks to "verse-jumping," they can channel the skills they've learned in other universes (kung fu, cooking, singing, etc.) to battle against an entity aiming to destroy everything, while also having to cope with the looming closure of their laundromat.
From a conceptual standpoint, Daniels have put a lot on their plate, yet they somehow manage to pace the entire experience at a rate similar to how Evelyn begins to grasp her situation. Waymond dumps a lot of exposition in the first act, to an almost dizzying degree, with Evelyn's disorientation mirroring the audience's. The further we get into the adventure, the clearer these heady concepts become to Evelyn, and, by proxy, the audience, proving the effectiveness of the Daniels' storytelling sensibilities. While it can surely feel overwhelming early on in the picture, there's clearly a thematic anchor that the pair sticks to, allowing everything else to fall into place. With a variety of other reality-bending narratives landing on the big screen in recent years, Everything Everywhere has enough confidence in audiences to deliver deluges of information in quick bursts, asking the viewer to come and meet the challenge, as opposed to offering one exposition dump after the next to hold the audience's hand through the entire ordeal.
Daniels also don't skimp on their visual inventiveness, continuing to push the boundaries of what seems feasible. Only having to consider two characters in their previous film, they were offered a lot of freedom in how to convey that story, but having a larger group of characters and more locations hasn't stifled their sensibilities a single iota. The film vibrates with life, whether Evelyn is merely walking through the laundromat to check on her machines or a multi-person martial arts fight breaks out in an office building. The reality-hopping narrative also allows them to explore various cinematic perspectives on rainy, city streets or as two piñatas communicate with one another in a family's backyard, with evolving aspect ratios helping the audience visually keep track of which reality we're in at any given moment. Certain shots even feel as though they contain hundreds of realities being depicted within a matter of moments, conveying the vastness of this storyline.
Helping masterfully convey that overwhelming bewilderment is Yeoh, whose career has offered her a number of opportunities to deliver bombastic action sequences. We're surely given multiple scenes in which she can show off her physical prowess, though the film also offers glimpses of her skills as a physical comedian, as opposed to merely her fighting capabilities. Additionally, the narrative allows her to showcase her dramatic skills, commanding a scene in which she depicts remorse or regret with slight changes to her facial expressions, rivaling how evocative she can be when battling back foes. Fans of Yeoh might not be surprised to see just how limitless her talents are, but Quan manages to shock viewers with nearly every scene he's in. While he earned acclaim as a child thanks to roles in cult-classics Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, his work in Everything Everywhere feels like a revelation. Quan absolutely holds his own when it comes to his action-oriented encounters, and is just as powerful delivering confessions about the state of his marriage with diminutive vulnerability. Having largely been away from the spotlight for nearly 20 years, we won't be surprised if Quan undergoes a well-earned renaissance of exciting opportunities. Supporting stars like Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, and James Hong all hold their own in the fantastical reality-jumper, but it's Yeoh and Quan who constantly steal scenes from one another.
More than merely being an adequate way to relay the vastness of the storyline, the title Everything Everywhere All at Once serves another purpose. It would be easy to distill some of the film's themes into more clichéd phrases like "nothing lost, nothing gained" or "no risk, no reward," as it was Evelyn's lack of pursuit of riskier endeavors that saw her seemingly settling for where her life took her. In this way, the film can surely be inspiring, as anyone who relates to Evelyn's ideas of disappointment can be motivated to take bigger swings with what they want out of life to feel more fulfilled. However, another major theme in the film is that, while it might feel easy to look back on your life and wish you had made different decisions, you might end up in a place that offers more fulfillment in one aspect, yet forces you to sacrifice other elements of your life you most cherish. By making any decision at all, you at least get to take agency over your life and accept that many of the highs and lows you encounter are of your own making.
Both of these ideas are relatively positive, but the Daniels even make themes of nihilism feel like they contain glimmers of hope. Adhering to the conceit of the film, if you're frustrated that you didn't get the career you thought you wanted, it shouldn't matter much, as there's another version of yourself who did pursue that path, so any decisions you did or didn't make throughout the course of your lifetime don't even matter, as we all exist in an infinitely massive universe. With life being so fleeting and our existences being so insignificant, no choice matters all the much and the universe will keep existing, despite these decisions personally being Earth-shattering. Even still, the film manages to remind us to savor the moments of joy that we have amassed over the years, as no alternate realities nor second chances nor commitment to chaos can take these moments away from us and it's these moments that make life worth living.
Thanks to nuanced performances, frenetic direction, and an unwavering devotion to optimistic storytelling, cinematically and existentially, the latest epic from the Daniels really does offer audiences everything, everywhere, and all at once.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently playing in select theaters and opens wide on April 1st.