Sometimes movies are like math or physics. The filmmaker’s equation balances the exposition of the first act with the catharsis of the third. A strong logistical backdrop of lights, VFX, and performance techniques add up to the dreamlike beauty of a scene. Through the chaos of writing and directing emerges something with heart and soul, something that had to be mined out of a mound of writer’s block and the experimental calculus of filmmaking. With their new film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the writing/directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) seem to have solved the hardest equation on the chalkboard, with their work shown for all to see. Their answer lies before the audience, boxed in widescreen and surrounded by googly eyes; their approach may be scientifically accurate, but it’s also one of the most hysterical experiences I’ve had watching a movie.
Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) can’t concentrate on one thing at a time, while her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) distracts her from her business of running a laundromat with his idealistic and naive nature. Their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) can’t seem to find a way into her mother’s heart because of how busy Evelyn is, and how reluctantly she accepts Joy’s having a girlfriend. Plus … Evelyn may or may not have accidentally committed tax fraud. These relatively conventional dramatic setups are still full of Daniels’ trademark kinetic, visual force within the opening minutes of the movie: like when their camera zooms into a mirror as the reflection encompasses the entire frame. But it’s not long before Daniels bring us into an off-the-wall sci-fi multiverse adventure that spindles together the family’s drama with the fate of all of time and space, using a centripetal force whose dimensions, velocity, and exact molecular structure would require lesser filmmakers years of intensive study to master.
The Daniels don’t just accept this challenge — they welcome it, like it’s the cake and ice cream they’ve been waiting to devour. There are sequences in this movie that last less than five seconds, but which must have had more work poured into them than a thesis student might have done in a whole semester. I’m serious. The elemental forces of filmmaking kick into overdrive when Evelyn learns how to transport herself between different universes. The cinematography and editing collaborate seamlessly to create outlandish transitions between realities, like the swap from an alternate Raccoon version of the “Ratatouille” storyline to the evolutionary history of a human race who has hot dogs for fingers.
The “Alpha Waymond,” an alternate version of Evelyn’s husband, teaches her how to gain skills from different Evelyns in the infinite multiverse, which leads to some of the most satisfying and hilarious fight sequences I have seen in movies from the past decade. Evelyn finds a universe in which she flips signs on a curbside professionally, so she uses those skills to fight off bad guys in her current universe, a scene accentuated by Daniels’ choice to cut between the parallel actions of both Evelyns. As another example, in order to activate and heighten the “random chance particles” floating between the multiverse, the characters have to do something so out-of-left-field that they can access their alternate selves. This means Alpha Waymond gives himself four equidistant paper cuts to achieve gymnastic skills, and Evelyn sniffs a fly up her nose to obtain the strongest pinkie fingers imaginable. Although these moments are terrifically appalling and unpredictable, they also fit perfectly into the ball of chaotic energy that Daniels use as the guiding tone for the entire film.
Alpha Waymond tells Evelyn that her mission is to subdue the most powerful being in the multiverse, a supervillain named Jobu Tupaki who has the unique burden of seeing all of the infinite multiverses simultaneously. Without spoiling anything, Evelyn soon realizes this supervillain might just be a misunderstood girl who happens to wield an overwhelming amount of power. The film continues unspooling ideological, conceptual, and expositional threads at a just-slow-enough-to-be-digestible pace without sacrificing its infectious sugar-high vibes. And the exposition always feels more like a 7-year-old explaining their new idea for a game of tag than like a filmbro getting you to absorb deep philosophical lore.
But Daniels have clear reasons behind the apparent madness of the film. Their admiration for filmmaking shines through, not only in the sheer scope of the film’s construction but also in its warm references to film history: everything from the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” to Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” — appearing within seconds of each other.
I should mention, too, that this movie is very funny — in a low-brow way. Like, extremely stupid humor. But just like the fastidious realizations of heady science fiction abstractions, funny scenes like Evelyn trying to sit on Deirdre Beaubeirdre’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) buttplug-looking trophies as a means of activating the random chance particles come across with unmistakable tonal purpose.
Daniels’ unfiltered approach to filmmaking, in which everything is thrown at the wall and every action has a conscious or subconscious reaction, ends up putting their audience in the most vulnerable position — emotional investment. The gross-out jokes and tangible visual effects softened me to receive the climax of Evelyn’s development, as she obtains such absolute power that she discovers where she would most like to be, in all the multiverse. I am not an easy egg to crack — indeed, getting me to cry in movies takes work on the part of the filmmakers. But Daniels understand the secret ingredient, the hidden linking variable that allows them to pull off their high-wire act: love, in every corner. In the design, in the performances, in the story, in the concepts, and in the hearts of each and every one of the characters. They see the beauty in all things, in all of the “cosmic gumbo” (as Kwan put it in an interview) of humanity and the universe. This is a transitive property of film: laughing = crying = shock = yelling.
And in Daniels’ case, everything = everywhere = all at once. Pure cinematic maximalism, in favor of a pure and kind-hearted embrace. But that’s neither math nor science. That’s the movies.