The months between the Oscars and the summer blockbuster season are typically reserved for the big vanity projects that hope to cash in on clean release windows with little to no competition to worry about. This year “The Batman,” “Fantastic Beasts 3” and the second “Dr. Strange” mystery all took advantage of this nominally quiet period and enjoyed longer moments in the box office sun than a June premiere could ever accommodate. Hidden each year amongst these opportunistic hits is often an indie sleeper, a critical darling that defies its modest marketing budget and shoulders its way into our viewing consciousness. It’s a bold move to announce yourself so far from next year’s awards consideration. Memories just aren’t that long in this game anymore.
Director duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are no strangers to the stranger corners of Hollywood storytelling. Their bizarre but endearing “Swiss Army Man” from 2016 tested the boundaries of surrealism, sentimentality and outright silliness and with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” they’re at it again. Veteran international star Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, an aging Chinese immigrant whose lifetime of mundane choices has created big problems for the multiverse. She’s not just the source of the trouble though. She’s also the only one who can fix it and the complex plot she gets drawn into against her will is one of the craziest things I’ve seen on film in many years. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this. The multiverse is a very popular pop culture topic right now and recent projects like “Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” as impressive and fun as they are, make me wonder if there is anything new to say on the topic. Well, clearly there is.
The Daniels, as the directors playfully refer to their conjoined creative brain, have given themselves a huge challenge with “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s a film about personal regret, complicated cultural compromise and existential desperation that chooses to confront its important questions in a madcap sci-fi / Kung-Fu setting. There is no reason why it should work, but it does, thanks in large part to the amazing cast. Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu are adorable and heartbreaking as the movie’s central family unit, but I cannot say another word about the acting without mentioning Jamie Lee Curtis. She is stunningly funny as Dierdre, an IRS Agent slash interdimensional thug, and she burns a hole through every single scene she’s in. Curtis throws her full impressive self into this project and her commitment is matched by everyone involved. It must have been an honor and a thrill to share the set with her.
I’ve loved Michelle Yeoh forever and I’m so pleased to see her get a role like this. Some of the scenarios the Daniels place her in are almost too ridiculous for the story’s emotional infrastructure to handle, but she is just so magnetic and genuine that I forgave every one of their indulgences. An impressive amount of visual variety bolsters these performances, and the best moments are the often the quietest ones. There’s a particular scene with two rocks in a desert that is surprisingly poetic, and very welcome, given the sensory saturation that surrounds it.
Even when “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is absurd, which it very often is, it’s amazing. As a risk-taking endeavor, it proves that you can still be high-concept without being high-budget. And though we shouldn’t need it, it also proves that there are plenty of interesting action-adventure tales to be told with powerful women in every stage of life at their center.