SXSW Film Review: Everything Everywhere All At Once

Daniels, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan live up to the title

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The opening night film of any festival should define it, set the stage and the tone. After two year away, South by Southwest needed to come back with a suitable bang. Cosmic comedy Everything Everywhere all at Once was the hilarious, mind bending, touching, inventive crowd pleaser the moment demanded.

It opens, suitably enough, with the camera going through the mirror, a way for directing duo Daniels (aka Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) to say that the rule book has just been thrown right out the window.

Yes, at first glance, this alternate universe seems very mundane. What could be more prosaic than a family preparing dinner and taxes in their apartment over the family business? Everything is held together by Evelyn, or so she thinks. In fact, the matriarch (Michelle Yeoh) is part of the reason everything's falling apart. She's constantly passive-aggressive about daughter Eleanor (Stephanie Hsu). consistently ignores her doting but increasingly distanced husband (Ke Huy Quan), and treats her visiting dad (James Hong) as not just an invalid but constantly at death's door.

So when things start to get a little ... off-kilter, shall we say ... and not just her inability to make headway with a demon tax auditor (a mercilessly funny Jamie Lee Curtis), she's of course going to push back. How could her nebbish husband suddenly be a back-flipping, dimension-hopping warrior who has jumped into her reality to tell her that she's the savior of the entire multiverse?

Is it good or bad timing that Daniels have decided to make a movie about crowded parallel realities just as Marvel and D.C. are doing exactly the same thing? Well, A, it's not like they invented the concept: B, Daniels have had this stewing for years; and C, no one makes films like Daniels. The team behind the equally chaotic/controlled Swiss Army Man are masters of density - visual, emotional, and character. The latter is important here because you have to keep a very close eye on who exactly is in the body you're looking at (parallel universes, remember?).

At one level this is a cavalcade of references to Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Chinese-American cinema, but not in a clumsy way. You don't go, "Well, that's the Wong Kar-Wai universe," or "Hey, that's a Samo Hung vibe." It's influence, not emulation; shorthand, not ripoff.

At the same time, no one makes films that look like the Daniels. The opening sequences prove that they can make even the most mundane environments seem bright and kinetic. Yet when they kick into high gear, throwing themselves between worlds that are like ours but just divergent enough to make an all-important difference, then no one packs in so many ideas and witty concepts with such grace and ease. Your pupils will be as wide as those on the googly eyes that become an omnipresent motif.

But where they really excel is as great directors of characters, actors, and emotion. Yeoh is Yeoh, in all the shades and aspects that she has ever shown in her prestigious career, and she gets to focus them through this cranky laundry owner. Her constant battles with her daughter will spark recognition in every parent and child because we've all been there, much as with her sparks with the perfectly irascible Hong. But she is matched, step-for-step, by the return to the screen of Quan. Steven Spielberg saw a monstrous charm and talent back in 1984 when he cast the young Quan as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but in 38 years he never got the projects he deserved, and took nearly two decades away from the camera. Here, he gets to be that nebbish husband, but he also channels Armor of God-era Jackie Chan, and turn-of-the-millennium Tony Leung. Like Yeoh, his performance is like a humble rainbow. They are never overshadowed by what Daniels do visually, nor do the directors every try. It's synergy, baby, the music of the movie spheres.

Truly, Everything Everywhere all at Once does one thing. Exactly what the title promises.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Headliners, World Premiere

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