Collaborative filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as the Daniels, have never been accused of resting on their laurels. They made a splash with their 2014 music video for the song “Turn Down for What,” in which Kwan played a character at the mercy of his highly visible state of arousal. Their 2016 feature debut, “Swiss Army Man,” starred Daniel Radcliffe as the titular flatulent corpse, whose body is used as a sort of all-purpose multitool/friend/therapist by a suicidal castaway (Paul Dano), who in the process discovers a reason to live.
And their new, sci-fi-inflected meditation on the meaning of life, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, a humble laundromat operator who discovers the multiverse, in which there are uncountable alternate versions of her with amazing skills that Evelyn must learn to tap into to defeat a malevolent being with the Star Wars-ian name of Jobu Tupaki.
Early in the film, Jobu is identified as an “agent of chaos” by a version of Evelyn’s husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, whom some may remember as Short Round from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”). This version of Evelyn’s spouse, who calls himself Alpha Waymond, has managed to figure out how to “verse-jump” from one reality to another, and he has come to warn Evelyn that, in each of the parallel worlds, Jobu has manifested himself - herself? itself? - in the body of Evelyn and Waymond’s slacker daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
Jobu’s instrument of destruction - or Death Star, so to speak - is represented as an everything bagel. (A bagel, it should be noted, is tennis slang for a score of zero, not coincidentally. So the central metaphor of the film is one of cosmic, zenlike opposites: all existence and all nothingness, wrapped up together in wax paper, with a schmear.)
Let it be said that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is irrefutable evidence that the Daniels have imagination and originality to burn. I guarantee you haven’t seen anything quite like it before. What this movie could use a little more of is the rigor and self-discipline to pull off all the imagination and originality in a way that does more than leave you gobsmacked.
By one measure, “Everything” is an exhilarating roller coaster ride of sci-fi gobbledygook. On another, it’s an intergenerational mother-daughter family drama masquerading as a philosophical dissertation on the nature of existence - with martial arts action. All of this is delivered with a pell-mell brio and a lo-fi special effects aesthetic reminiscent of Michel Gondry, funneled through a fire hose that blasts everything at you so fast that you might not notice how silly and sophomoric it all is.
The mechanism for verse-jumping? It involves identifying the most statistically unlikely decision you can make at any given moment, then doing it: putting your shoes on the wrong feet, for instance; eating an entire stick of lip balm; deliberately giving yourself paper cuts.
And the ultimate message of the film - or, rather, messages, as there seem to be several, delivered like desserts on a sampler platter, over the course of the film’s seemingly interminable third act - are, in no particular order: Nothing matters; be kind; we’re all small and stupid; love each other; and it’s all just a pointless, swirling bucket of baloney (“baloney” being a euphemism for what you might step in on a cattle ranch).
Some may find that last lesson emblematic of the film itself. Others will be dazzled by Yeoh’s acting (it’s amazing) or the deadpan comedic performance of Jamie Lee Curtis as a humorless IRS auditor named Deirdre Beaubeirdra. (Apparently, Banana-Fana-Feaufeirdra wouldn’t fit on her nameplate.) Deirdre, who appears in multiple forms, is, in one of the multiverses - one in which everyone has hot dogs for fingers - Evelyn’s lover. In another, she’s her nemesis.
It’s hard to know what to make of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s a tour de force - but of what? It’s exhausting. It’s funny. It’s confusing. It’s way too long and feels like it has multiple endings. One scene features a silent conversation in subtitles, between two boulders with googly eyes glued on them. Googly eyes are a central leitmotif of the film, for unknown reasons.
Forget “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” This movie gives new meaning to the words “strange” and “madness.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of an everything bagel: a substrate of bupkis, dressed up with whatever you can throw on it.
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Two and one-half stars. Rated R. At theaters. Contains violence, sexual humor and coarse language. 140 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.