I enjoyed the Daniels’ debut feature Swiss Army Man, which I categorized on my Top Films of 2016 list as “an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner.” Even as a fan of that understandably divisive gross-out, I still agree with the consensus that their follow-up film is a huge step up for the music video director-duo. Everything Everywhere All at Once triples down on the Cold Stone Creamery approach to filmmaking that the Daniels toyed with in Swiss Army Man, mashing every cinematic indulgence the directors could manage—from alternate-dimension sci-fi to vaudevillian slapstick to sincere Wong Kar-Wai homage—into a massive, delectable headache. And yet it securely anchors that chaos to a solid emotional rock in a way that Swiss Army Man could not, which left it feeling adrift. I don’t even know that I would encourage fans of Everything Everywhere double back to check out the Daniels’ debut. You probably already knew in 2016 whether a farting-corpse boner comedy was going to appeal to you, and that likely has not changed. In contrast, Everything Everywhere crams in a little taste of something for absolutely everyone, so much so that you’ll find yourself recommending it to family & coworkers despite it featuring its own gross-out gags involving butt-plugs & hotdog fellatio.
The elevator pitch for this unlikely crowd-pleaser is that it offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where The Matrix was directed by Michel Gondry. It’s nice there. Everything Everywhere is structured around a standard-issue comic book plot in which a maniacal supervillain attempts to gain ultimate power over the infinite alternate timelines of “the Multiverse,” with only a specially equipped Chosen One hero standing in their way. It distorts that superhero blockbuster template through the hand-crafted dream logic & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of our twee yesteryear, bringing an earnestness & personality to the genre that’s sorely missing from its megacorporate equivalents. The superpower that allows ordinary characters to leap between these infinite timelines is the cosmic surprise of an unexpected, improbable act, “the less it makes sense the better.” The Daniels openly dare you to roll your eyes at the “LOL! So random!” humor of that premise, packing the screen with randomly generated totems like googly eyes, talking racoons, pro wrestling finishers, lethal fanny packs, and an all-powerful, apocalyptic Everything Bagel. However, every silly, randomsauce image is lovingly crafted and thoughtfully anchored to the film’s emotional rock, earning its place on the screen beyond a for-its-own-sake indulgence. They somehow even make their Chosen One heroine’s Deadpool-style observations about the absurdity of her predicament (especially her stubborn mispronunciations of the villain’s name) feel well-earned & natural to her character. It’s an incredible feat.
The aforementioned emotional rock is the lead performance from the always-solid Michelle Yeoh. The infinite alternate timelines premise demands that Yeoh play infinite alternate versions of herself, and she excels at every turn. Yeoh is funny. Yeoh is frustrating. Yeoh breaks your heart into a thousand shards, then lovingly glues them together again. The Daniels obviously have immense respect for her range as a performer. They allow her to show off both the stern dramatic severity & classic Hong Kong action superheroics she’s already famous for, then demonstrate the thousands of possibilities in-between those extremes we’ve been robbed of seeing onscreen. Ke Huy Quan & Stephanie Hsu are also wonderful as her husband & daughter, respectfully, exploding the boundaries of what audiences have been trained to expect from their Nice Guy side character & flamboyant Gay Villain archetypes. It’s Yeoh who leaves you in total stunned awe, though, especially as the rare Strong Female Character who’s allowed to be a genuinely complicated person. We’re introduced to our hero as the absolute worst version of herself across the vast multiverse. She’s terrible at the enormous entirety of everything, most crucially in the way she relates to her family as they frantically scurry through their shared daily routine. Watching her learn to be a better person by breaking out of her rigid-thinking patterns & emotional cowardice is inspirational, something I can’t say about most Chosen One superheroes.
It’s easy to be reductive about what makes Everything Everywhere great, since the Daniels are willing to pummel you with an infinite supply of absurdly disparate, deeply silly imagery. Pushing past that impulse, it’s impressive that a loud, chaotic superhero movie can prompt you to evaluate how you live your daily life and how you can work towards becoming the best possible version of yourself. Considering that I only walked away from their last picture with fond memories of laughing at farts & boners, I’m okay conceding this follow-up was a major improvement. My own rigid, stubborn, contrarian impulses would usually have me defending their earlier, messier work against their popular break-out, but in this instance the consensus take is the correct one.