Way back in 1998, before Marvel made metaverses a household concept, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a lovely parallel-realities drama called “Sliding Doors,” in which a woman’s life split along two paths, depending on whether or not her character caught a specific train. At the time, juggling these competing fates was considered to be so demanding that the filmmakers obliged one of the two Gwyneths to get a haircut, so audiences could tell them apart.
Nearly a quarter-century later, our collective cine-literacy has gotten so sophisticated that “Sliding Doors” seems no more challenging than a simple game of tic-tac-toe. But that doesn’t necessarily mean audiences can handle the gnarly three-dimensional sudoku puzzle that is “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a mile-a-minute mind-bender from absurdist duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — aka the Daniels — that argues every conceivable variation of our lives exists in some alternate universe or other, then proceeds to give its harried heroine (Michelle Yeoh) a whirlwind tour of all those possibilities.
Produced by comrades in maximalism the Russo brothers, the result is a mess, but a meticulously planned and executed mess, where every shot, every sound effect and every sight gag fits exactly as the Daniels intended into this dense and cacophonous eyesore, which endeavors to capture the staggering burden of trying to exist in a world of boundless choice (an idea Jaco Van Dormael’s “Mr. Nobody” did with comparable complexity). It’s a hyperactive solution for today’s attention-deficit audiences, who’ve been bombarded by bad news — of pandemics and protests and imminent world wars — and whose real concerns boil down to the basics, like getting along with their parents or scrounging the money to pay the rent.
“Everything Everywhere” does everything but buck your seats and spritz you with water, although I’m pretty sure the Daniels would be thrilled for the film to play in 4DX theaters that do just that. Their goal is evidently to deliver an unparalleled sensory-overload experience, as this busy, multilingual film throttles us for the better part of two hours (much of it handled in Chinglish, with Yeoh’s immigrant character switching among English, Cantonese and Mandarin mid-sentence) before bringing it all into a poignant group hug.
Scheinert and Kwan are style-over-substance directors who desperately want their films to be as profound as they are formally inventive. Their 2016 feature debut, “Swiss Army Man,” was the same way: a pageant of gonzo Michel Gondry-like invention that quieted down in the final stretch to make a sincere statement against suicide. This one looks at the intense parent-child bond in one Asian family — especially the impossible demands that the immigrant mom puts on her daughter — and argues that letting go while loving unconditionally is the answer.
There are enough ideas in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to fuel a dozen movies, or else a full-blown TV series, but the Daniels have shoehorned it all into a bombastic, emotionally draining 139 minutes. Moviegoers with limber imaginations may well appreciate the lunatic ambition and nutso execution of this high-concept hurricane, which ricochets like a live-action cartoon for most of that duration. But less versatile viewers will emerge frazzled, like Wile E. Coyote after swallowing a stick of dynamite: their heads charred, blinking blankly as smoke wafts from their ears.
As much as narrative innovation typically excites me, I confess to falling in the latter category this time around, unable to grasp the movie’s overcomplicated sci-fi logic, which takes the red-pill mind-screw of “The Matrix” and multiplies it by infinity. Yeoh plays immigrant matriarch Evelyn Wang, who operates a laundromat with husband Raymond (Ke Huy Quan, who played Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and Data in “The Goonies,” now all grown up) that’s being audited by the IRS. As if her tax woes weren’t enough, she’s saddled with personal issues too: Nothing she does is good enough for her father, Gong Gong (James Hong), which in turn informs the way Evelyn treats her exasperated adult daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
Raymond has drawn up divorce papers, but instead of serving them, he’s overcome by a quivering sensation on the way to the tax office, whereby a version of Raymond from a parallel universe occupies his body during an elevator ride. This more agile proxy performs an impromptu mental scan of Evelyn, instructing her how to access her alternate lives, unlocking all kinds of kooky Charlie Kaufman-esque possibilities. Evelyn doesn’t know what to think, but follows Not-Raymond’s directions, which allow her to “verse-jump.”
She tries it for the first time in the middle of the Wang family’s meeting with Deirdre, a surly IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) who looks hilariously frumpy in a bowl cut and a mustard-colored turtleneck. For Evelyn, who only half-understands English, this audit is root-canal uncomfortable, and the Daniels ensure that it’s every bit as unpleasant for us, made even bumpier by her maiden verse-jump to a nearby janitor’s closet, where split screens and blurry overlay effects convey how it feels for Evelyn to be multitasking conversations in two places at once.
Things only get more intimidating from there, as the quantum-leaping Raymond explains the rules that an alternate Evelyn discovered. Apparently, she’s some sort of big-brain physicist in another dimension, whereas she learns “you’re living your worst you” in this one — meaning that every other possible Evelyn made more successful life choices. One became a huge Hong Kong action star (that Evelyn is closest to real-life Yeoh), others an opera singer, a maid or a teppanyaki-style chef. The Daniels present as many of these realities as possible in short, zany micro-sketches. There’s even a universe in which everyone has hot dogs for fingers, and rather than cutting to that scenario just once, the directors bring it back again and again as an extended joke. Same thing with a running gag about a world where people are mind-controlled by racoons.
One can’t help wondering what, if anything, wound up on the editing room floor in this movie, which shifts into dark, apocalyptic mode relatively early, as a demented alternate version of Deirdre comes after Evelyn like a broke-down, Lane Bryant-clad Terminator. But the evil IRS auditor isn’t the true antagonist here. Nor are the vaguely Agent Smith-like security guards. The real threat is Joy, Evelyn’s daughter, on whom Mom has piled life’s many disappointments, to the point that Joy finally snapped. She has reinvented herself as an entity known as Jobu Tupaki, who jumps from universe to universe murdering Evelyns and leaving a trail of chaos in her wake.
Great storytellers make sense of chaos, whereas the Daniels gleefully embrace it, amplifying the headachy sensation with rapid editing and Son Lux’s broken-pipes score. “Everything Everywhere” recognizes that life can be overwhelming, that family dynamics are tricky and the world isn’t fair. It counters those challenges with an unexpected sense of optimism, even as a giant CG everything bagel comes bursting through a parallel dimension to swallow up all that Evelyn holds dear. As the Daniels riffle manically between the dozen or so worlds they’ve created, we hardly notice that perhaps only 10 principal characters populate them. By keeping the cast small, they make it slightly easier to distinguish between the various realities — including one that can’t sustain life, in which Evelyn and Joy appear as rocks — but still can’t resist the kind of meta humor that inspires the feint where faux credits roll at the 85-minute mark. (Would that this were the end!)
It’s hard to believe half the stuff they’ve gotten away with here — from a fanny-pack fight sequence to an irreverent bit in which security guards use butt plugs as multiverse portals — even if the sum falls far short of coherent. True to their brand, the Daniels have made a film that reflects their off-the-wall sense of humor (their second feature, “The Death of Dick Long,” focused on a man who hooked up with a horse), blasting us with electric-shock paddles, rather than spoon-feeding anything for easy comprehension. These two trust their audience enough that they never would have given Gwyneth Paltrow separate haircuts. But maybe they should’ve slowed down just a bit to wonder if we could follow. “Everything Everywhere” is ultimately too much of a good thing, a novel idea driven to the point of exhaustion.