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In 'Everything Everywhere All at Once,' Michelle Yeoh fights for her lives at SXSW

Eric Webb
Austin 360

The smallest decisions ripple across a lifetime. We know this, because of perennial Walmart DVD bin tenants like "Sliding Doors" and "The Butterfly Effect."

Now, thanks to "Everything Everywhere All the Time," we also know that confessing your love to Jamie Lee Curtis can make you an all-seeing, all-knowing time god.

South by Southwest Film Festival on Friday returned with a bang — and sentient piñatas — thanks to the world premiere of a multiverse-spanning sci-fi feature from A24 and filmmaking duo Daniels (aka Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert).

And what a return. Before the festival began, SXSW film programmers told the American-Statesman that "Everything Everywhere All at Once" came to them almost serendipitously. The fest-opener was the first movie on the lineup to be announced last year.

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Much like a hallucinogen might cause you to cycle through every human emotion and see your life laid out end to end — theoretically — this film has an ability to dazzle built into every kinetic, colorful, madcap frame. It's not hard to see why a festival looking to make its in-person return after two pandemic-stricken years away might choose a big-hearted, big-brained, big sex toy-featuring entry like this to welcome its friends home to Austin.

In "Everything Everywhere All at Once," Evelyn Wang (the divine, does-it-all Michelle Yeoh) runs a failing laundromat with husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). She's terminally distracted by the mundanities and indignities of life, including intractable, generational tension with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and father (James Hong). Plus, the Wangs are being audited by the world's most dogged and dead-serious IRS investigator, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis, a vision in a blunt bang and an ochre sweater).

"Everything Everywhere All at Once" made its world premiere at South by Southwest Film Festival on March 11, 2022.

But then, the fabric of reality begins to bend, as it often does. We'll spare you the mechanics — just go see it — but any number of small choices Evelyn could make cause infinite branches of alternate lifetimes. When an alt-Waymond manifests to warn her of an all-powerful danger hunting her through this multiverse, Evelyn must access the skills of her chronologically splintered doppelgängers to survive. 

She's in for the fights of her lives.

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OK, but do need to add here, they're some weird lives. We're talking about people with hot dog fingers.

Rarely has a movie lived up to its name as well as "Everything Everywhere All at Once," and yet the final product is such satisfyingly ordered chaos, any less ambition would have been a crime against the timeline.

Stephanie Hsu gets to wear outfits you'd never dreamed of in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

Kwan and Scheinert go for a concept as high as Mount Everest, where other worlds and other Yeohs shift at increasingly breakneck speeds. Sometimes this involves something as simple as Yeoh dressed in a sign-spinner's get-up. Often, it ushers in surprisingly rich — and condensed — potential life stories, like one where Evelyn never left home, became a martial arts master and then used those combat skills to become an actress who looks a lot like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Michelle Yeoh.

The fights, of which there are many, take the best moves of classic karate flicks and feed them MDMA through an IV. A fanny pack becomes a deadly weapon; pinky fingers pack the punch of a neutron bomb.

And listen, if you just like watching weird stuff that makes your eyes do the cha cha cha, "Everything Everywhere All at Once" is your kind of dance party. Throughout, the Daniels flip the bird to traditional cinematic forms. No surprise, if you've seen their music video work (I recommend their visual for Foster the People's "Houdini.") 

What starts in a drab world of tax forms and spin cycles morphs exponentially into a google-eyed cartoon cataclysm, with a visual language that's only unified in that it's all equally bizarre. Sometimes colors punch you in the face; other times, a great cosmic threat proves a talent for monochromatic interior design.

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None of it works without Yeoh — the directors admitted after the SXSW screening that no one else could play Evelyn. It's so deeply satisfying to watch her emote, kick ass, play chameleon and do a million other things, given her storied career and recent spate of good supporting turns in films like "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" that didn't quite give her enough to do.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Michelle Yeoh encounter each other across time in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

Curtis plays both comic relief and terrifying antagonist to a tee, in what's got to be her most outlandish film role ever. Quan, the actor of "Goonies" and "Indiana Jones" fame making his first film in 20 years, sands down the Daniels' spikier impulses with sweet decency. It's Hsu who frankly gets to have the most fun, though; no spoilers. When your gravitational pull and wardrobe budget rival Michelle Yeoh's, you know good things are in store. 

"Everything Everywhere All at Once," being a film from the guys who brought you the sick and kind of mean-spirited corpse fantasy "Swiss Army Man," still manages to stick in some filth. The years have been kind since they made Daniel Radcliffe play a farting cadaver, and so the mischief hits all the right-but-wrong notes here.

Would you believe, though, that this lunatic ride through time and space is actually a sweet ode to purpose, and to ending cycles of generational abuse, and to defeating nihilism?

In "Everything Everywhere All at Once," Ke Huy Quan plays the husband of Michelle Yeoh's multiversal champion Evelyn.

"We have to be kind," a character says at a climatic moment, "especially when we don't know what's going on." 

A hard choice to make, for sure. But it just takes a tiny choice, remember, to create lives you've never imagined. 

Grade: A