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Everything Everywhere All At Once Demands Your Head and Heart

Image courtesy of A24 Films

It was Owen Wilson’s John Beckwith character in Wedding Crashers who said “You know how they say we only use 10% of our brains? I think we only use 10% of our hearts.” He was dropping that doozy of self-created dogma as a pickup line to exude soulfulness. It worked, but maybe John was onto something bigger and more veritable than we realized 17 years ago. The fantastical new film Everything Everywhere All at Once may just be the perfect benchmark to prove that philosophical nugget.

The Daniels writing and directing team of Daniel Scheinart and Dan Kim (Swiss Army Man) apply surrealism that zips and zings to an extreme level in creating a very domestic multiverse movie that subverts superhero motifs. All the dazzlement laid before the audience funnels levels of familial love more connective and invincible than any costumed paragon from a bigger movie. To absorb this exhilarating and passionate flurry, you will need far more than 10% of both your brain and your heart.

If you have the headspace to meet Everything Everywhere All at Once at its fullest peculiarity, you will be rewarded with one of the most visionary movies you may ever see. Better yet, if you have the heart space to meet this movie at its fullest exuberance, you will see it skyrocket even further. If you can arrive with, and expand, that frame of mind and virtuous spirit, you will then be rewarded even more than you could have imagined by this wholly original and sincere adventure.

The married immigrants of Evelyn and Waymond Wang (the headlining Michelle Yeoh and the long-lost Ke Huy Quan) run a Simi Valley laundromat and live in the crowded apartment above it with her elderly father (the living classic James Hong). The monotony of their blue collar lives couldn’t be heavier as they approach tax season staring at a desk full of receipts and a looming audit that could crush their family business.

All the while, Evelyn avoids heart-to-heart conversations and has failed to make peace with the changes coming from her teenage daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu of Girl Code). The Americanized young lady has a steady girlfriend no one accepts while being depressed and shackled by the responsibilities of lofty and antiquated family expectations. Meanwhile, seeing little to no value in himself and of his standing with Evelyn anymore, Waywond has divorce papers drawn up ready to sign. All of those issues come to a head as the family is ordered to meet with the irascible IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis, who is an absolute hoot).

A tax inspector holds up a receipt.
Image courtesy of A24 Films

Right before this meeting occurs, Waymond dons a pair of Bluetooth earpieces in an elevator and skips like a record into a man-of-action version of himself warning Evelyn of the dangers that lie ahead. He grants another pair of earbuds to Evelyn and vital written instructions. When the wrong emotions fracture during the meeting with Deirdre, the world breaks with it, introducing a multiverse of alternate identities to Evelyn. She is spun for a loop that turns everything everywhere (pun intended and living up to its title) topsy-turvy for a quest to correct the flaws that threaten survival of her family and the combined universes.

Nearly immediately after the first sh-t of many hits the fan capped off by a fanny pack throwdown of martial arts greatness, Evelyn asks Waymond, “Explain it all to me now” in an exasperating fashion. The best cartographer in the world could not draft a map that charts out all the available plot lines and contours of this movie. The structure to it all, as it were and as revealed in three labeled chapters, has its specific and obscure rules, limits, quandaries, and needs. In this matter, the advice is easy. Just go with it. Open that head, open that heart, and just go with it.

A woman in a long evening gown arrives in a lobby.
Image courtesy of A24 Films

The crux of the narrative breakages in Everything Everywhere All at Once is how every one of Evelyn’s rejections and disappointments have led her to this moment. Unbeknownst to her until now is that small decisions with different results in her and her husband’s pasts have created branching timelines, many of which have Evelyn and others living up to their fullest potential with lifestyles greater than their debt-ridden and defeated present state.

Slickly allowing Yeoh’s martial arts prowess to come through, the “Alphaverse” Waymond shows Evelyn how she can borrow the memories and skills of her other selves when needed, including an international action star version of herself. That’s a hell of a rub to play with for a movie. With this highly intriguing premise, The Daniels have created an irresistible set of scenarios that allows Evelyn, and the viewers, to entertain the possibilities of divergent life paths across spouses, careers, evolved traits, and more.

A woman in a rhinestone outfit walks in pursuit..
Image courtesy of A24 Films

In building this peril, The Daniels also raise the moral stakes in Everything Everywhere All at Once from being something frivolous for the sake of light quirk. The tantalizing chances presented of applying personal improvements calls into question how the connected characters form or change their dispositions. From Evelyn on down, they are tested on how they live, love, fight, and survive. Some can rise to the occasion while others cave. The wonderful weight scripted by Kim and Scheinart of this extra pressure is a brilliant spine of nerves for the movie.

Who would have ever uttered A24 and IMAX in the same sentence before Everything Everywhere All at Once and believed the possibility? Good luck tallying any truthful show of hands across social media or cinephile circles. The studio and the filmmakers here step forward to prove that even economical production values can belong and engage audiences with equal power on the colossal theatrical format. The craft of this film is as layered and thorough as its narrative.

A man bends backward to catch a file.
Image courtesy of A24 Films

For as stupendous as Everything Everywhere All at Once bends its multiverse, the settings and outer character shells appear unassuming at first. The central office building for most of the film dressed by production designer Jason Kisvarday (Palm Springs) and cluttered by property master Joshua Bramer (Euphoria) seems ordinary enough. The frumpy fashions from costume designer Shirley Kurata (HBO Max’s Generation) signal the struggling mundanity of these characters. The splashy score from Looper performer Son Lux and the background inspiration of the 2000 ditty “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” from Nine Days create the initial playful mood.

And then the switches are flipped. All those trappings morph dramatically for confrontations. The surroundings come to life marvelously to serve the character shifts and combative triggers.

Light digital and practical embellishments from visual effects supervisor Zak Stolz, leading his first feature, percolate the blandness into a froth of fun. Fashion choices become forceful and weaponized character statements. Innocent office supplies and personalized baubles become handy, deadly, and indispensable tools. The fluorescent-lit bowels and lobbies brighten to become zones for battle where anything goes. Lux’s score turns up the suspense and Nine Days’ John Hampson drops in catchy remixes of his signature one-hit wonder that chronicle the bent new realities.

A woman chops with a martial arts move.
Image courtesy of A24 Films

Cinematographer Larkin Seiple’s (Luce) fluid camera seizes its subjects and these wild encounters with emphatic intimacy while dexterously dipping in and out of kinetic action when called upon. Longtime TV stunt coordinator Timothy Eulich (Stranger Things) and fight choreographer Andy Le (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) arranged delightful dances of punched faces and kicked asses. To organize these moving parts and tune the busy elements, editor Paul Rogers (The Death of Dick Long) had the most impossible work of all in splicing together this macabre tornado. The results are extraordinary.

As overtly weird as Everything Everywhere All at Once looks and feels, there is certifiably something for everyone, confident or cautious, to love about this movie. Just when you cannot see yourself comprehending a world of people with hot dog-length fingers, another one embracing the silliness of sticky googly eyes, or even an ancient time of talking rocks before multicellular intelligent life, the brimming humanity underneath bubbles through with geysers of cathartic empathy. You look past what would be gags with skewed and jiggled visions and see the raw and relatable emotions at work. Again, it’s about finding the space in both your head and your heart to embrace the oddity.

A woman with hot dog fingers holds up her hand.
Image courtesy of A24 Films

That’s where the performances channel those geysers into calming showers. Remove the varnishes of weirdness and the fierce fights and you have a family unit agonizing with their internal and external struggles. All, within their own colliding quests for happiness, are trying to put their best feet forward to co-exist. Like any of us, they screw up and need help. An open mind and heart can see those qualities thanks to a devoted trio of actors offering sensational performances across all the variant guises they are asked to play.

Michelle Yeoh is a tower of strength and parental pride pushed to points where she must either release clenched control or find her better self. Stephanie Hsu shoulders and dispenses much of this movie’s maligned pain until overdue healing can arrive. With rousing results, Ke Huy Quan, remembered from his blockbuster days of youth and returning to American cinema after decades away, asserts himself to become one of the best congenial romantic leads of recent memory. After starting as the meek afterthought of the Wang family, his Waymond to become the bridge and the glue holding everyone together in a stirring fashion.

Everything Everywhere All at Once flirts with characters resigned to nihilistic fates where they see themselves as “small and stupid” and “specks of time” in a grand universe. That may very well be when it’s all said and done, depending on your core beliefs. While we’re here, however, we come from, seek, and surround ourselves with people to love. They matter and make us matter as we forge lives together. Nothing about that endeavor is small or stupid. Drawing from Dan Kim’s adjacent family experiences, the themes of family couldn’t be more poignant.

The Daniels have created an communal movie-going experience that shows that inherited importance while representing an artistic and creative importance all its own as a beacon of independent filmmaking. Here we are in April and Everything Everywhere All at Once may already lay claim as the most emotive movie of the year. The challenge to find more feels in a movie this year is on, and this film has extremely good chances at not being topped in that department. Good luck trying to get that smile off your face.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved and Banana Meter-approved film critic writing here on 25YL Media and his own website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He is also one of the hosts of the 25YL-backed Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Internet Film Critics Society, Independent Film Critics of America, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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