“Everything Everywhere All at Once” may be the most literal film title since Georges Méliès made “A Trip to the Moon.” This ingenious dazzler—half-poignant epic, half-prank—by filmmaking duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka The Daniels) introduces us to one woman, Evelyn Wang ( Michelle Yeoh, of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), and her multitudes, the infinite Evelyns scattered across the multiverse whose decisions, big and small, peeled their life trajectories apart from the Alpha Evelyn, a brilliant scientist who invented a technique to leap between her counterparts.
A successful verse jump, as it’s called, requires the traveler to break loose from expectations by doing something bizarre. Swallow a tube of lip balm, perhaps, or snort a housefly. The less sense it makes, the better—a dare the writer-directors embrace, both in brainstorming stunts that tickle the audience to laugh and in concocting this demented yet meticulously crafted ode to chaos.
Alas, for our centerpiece Evelyn, an irritable coin laundromat owner, by the time she learns about any of this, her best self and thousands of other superior Evelyns have been murdered by the dreaded Jobu Tupaki ( Stephanie Hsu ), an agent of anarchy whose name our hapless heroine can’t remember. (“You’re just making up sounds,” Evelyn snipes.) Besides, this Evelyn doesn’t have time to save the day: Her tender, henpecked husband, Waymond ( Ke Huy Quan, who made his screen debut as Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), wants a divorce; her sullen daughter de ella, Joy, wants to disappear from the family; her tyrannical father, Gong Gong (James Hong), wants to justify dismissing her as a failure; and her dour tax auditor Deirdre (a hilarious Jamie Lee Curtis ) wants her laundromat’s IRS paperwork in by 6 pm On top of all this, now she’s supposed to summon the skills of a constellation of other Evelyns—maid Evelyn, chef Evelyn, cardboard- sign-twirling Evelyn—to do. . . er, can someone explain it to her again? She was too distracted to listen.
This is a film that thumbs its nose at tired Chosen One narratives. It lauds free will, including the choice to act selfishly, screw up, and learn nothing from your mistakes. Our Evelyn is stubborn, poison-tongued and sick of being poor. When told she could have been someone else—say, movie star Evelyn who is similar enough to Ms. Yeoh herself that the film splices in red carpet footage of the actress—she loathes her current life de ella all the more. A dashing Alpha version of her spouse attempts to give Evelyn a pep talk and convince her to try to save the day. “Every rejection, every disappointment has led you to this moment.” She’s unmoved, and, honestly, so is he. If this Evelyn fails, he’ll move to another in the multiverse, maybe the Evelyn who knuckled under her father’s pressure to remain in China and became a Kung Fu master with pinkies stronger than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps.
Sound complicated? The story is just getting under way. “Everything Everywhere” is an adventure about love and nihilism, immigration dreams and disappointments, scatological humor and talking piñatas, plus a far-flung reality where the entire population has hot dogs for fingers. Over its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, the movie’s ambitions double, and double again, as though it’s a petri dish teeming with Mr. Kwan and Mr. Scheinert’s wildest ideas. The filmmakers, whose debut “Swiss Army Man” used a gassy corpse as a vehicle for beautiful insights into the mortal condition, are gifted at punctuating serious moments with giggles and farcical gags with the utmost solemnity. Everything from the costumes to the production design has been calibrated for maximum creativity. They’re as giddy to dress Ms. Hsu’s villain in a spangled Elvis jumpsuit as they are to introduce a doomsday device that’s revealed to be an everything bagel topped with literally everything.
An emotional, high-concept, sci-fi action-comedy should hold together as well as a 150-foot-tall gumball machine in an earthquake. But this tricky execution is accomplished with steady hands, even if the script shoehorns in occasional lines of dialogue that attempt to pre-emptively excuse any confusion (“All we get are a few specks of time when any of this makes sense,” Joy says knowingly). Larkin Seiple’s camera moves with confidence and visual clarity, anchoring montages that zip through endless Evelyn variants while leaping agilely into the fray of a fight scene. The combat sequences are impeccably choreographed and continually surprising, shunning gore for cartoonish spins and splats. (One stand-out bit involves a fanny pack stuffed with fish-tank gravel; another, a small dog on a retractable leash.)
Naturally, Ms. Yeoh gets to flaunt her athletic grace. However, it’s the dozen iterations of Evelyn she plays in between (and during) punches that make this the performance of her career. This is her showcase of her even as she’s framed by goons who burst into glitter, a slow-burning joke about a knife-wielding raccoon, and a philosophical debate between two rocks in a corner of a multiverse where biological life never existed. Despite their wundercabinet of delights, the filmmakers most want to celebrate human beings in all their contradictions. Each of us, the movie says, is capable of everything.
—Ms. Nicholson is a film critic in Los Angeles and host of the podcast “Unspooled.”
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