2022 | rated PG-13 | starring Daniel Craig, Janelle Monae, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick | written & directed by Rian Johnson | 2h 19m |
What a wonderful surprise, Rian Johnson’s 2018 Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery Knives Out was. One of my very favorite movies of the year, a proof of concept for writer/director Johnson (who has now made more good movies than Disney has made Star Wars movies) and an invitation for a resurgence in the English murder mystery, the film was a knock out. While completely self contained, the film introduced us to Johnson’s brilliant detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and the opportunity to send Blanc on all sorts of new adventures made the possibility of a sequel too good to pass up. Johnson mostly recreates what was so much fun about Knives Out with Glass Onion, changing up the cast, location, tone and offering a new impossible mystery for Blanc to solve.
Tech millionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) invites his close group of friends to a murder mystery weekend party at his new high-tech home, called the Glass Onion, on the Greek isles to celebrate the latest technological breakthrough for his company, Alpha. The group, who all fancy themselves Disrupters, includes Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn), fashion icon Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), internet fitness and men’s right’s guru Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), Alpha’s chief scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton), former co-founder Andi Brand (Janelle Monae, Antebellum) and, of course, world renowned detective Benoit Blanc to see if he too can solve the mystery.
Glass Onion is a very entertaining movie. Quick, clever and funny. But it’s even better, and mostly works, as a sequel. The fun of the film comes from having Knives Out at your back and watching Johnson expertly navigate sequelitis. He is keenly aware of what made Knives Out work as well as what to shake up and change to keep the formula fresh. I personally prefer the first film because I prefer the dark-and-stormy night Agatha Christie atmosphere of it all. Again, Johnson assembles a crackerjack cast (how, I have no idea), a wickedly smart mystery plot that seems stitched up pretty tight at the halfway point, some very funny dialog and an aggressively topical setting (this time set in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic so his characters can fumble around with their masks) to distance himself from Christie’s timelessness. Once again, Blanc is the constant but not the focus of the story, this time with Janelle Monae’s aggrieved ex-business partner taking the revenge arc in a story designed to introduce the world to her the way Knives Out introduced us to Ana De Armas.
What’s changed? A lot actually, but it’s all in the details. The film leans hard into the comedy. It replaces the foggy mood with a bright tropical paradise, the classic mansion with a high tech one. Ultimately the “real murder mystery inside the murder mystery party” story doesn’t have a lot of stakes or suspense. Johnson does a lot of tapdancing around the film, full of flashbacks and clever mis-directs to unpeel the plot. The big problem with the movie all involves the final reveal and how ultimately shallow and unsatisfying it all is. Where Knives Out was a mystery with some laughs, Glass Onion is a comedy first and mystery a distant second.
Johnson has a lot of fun constructing the high-tech jokes, turning Bron’s mansion into a wealth of visual gags that include an omnipresent hourly dong (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), virtual tennis classes with Serena Williams and a garden alarm that lectures Blanc to keep the environment smoke-free. Some of it is sharp, some of it is lame. You’ll never guess but the men’s rights tough guy lives with his mom and the tech millionaire steals his ideas from others. There feels like a sharp turn on Blanc himself. In Knives Out Blanc comes off like an American detective – part Hercule Poirot, part Foghorn Leghorn, part Tennessee Watergate attorney Jim Neal. Glass Onion’s Blanc is more of a buffoon. Yes, he solves Bron’s mystery hilariously early and still seems like the smartest guy in the room, but this time Johnson puts him in a room full of idiots and spends the film making fun of them.
There is so much misdirection and double crosses going on here that it almost goes by the wayside that the actual murder at the center of the film doesn’t get solved. Instead of Johnson coming up with a clever piece of physical evidence to nail the bad guy at the last minute (who at this point has not just killed, but destroyed reputations and friendships along the way) the film completely falls apart. Climaxing with Monae’s character not besting him in a game of mental chess, but pitching a fit and tearing apart the mansion. The Mona Lisa itself figures into the film (with Bron apparently so powerful he has been entrusted to keep it safe during Covid) and it’s ultimate destruction goes beyond revenge into destroying a priceless artifact that belongs to the world. It made me hate the very character I was supposed to be rooting for.
There is fun to be had in Glass Onion for sure. I was entertained. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that Johnson is undermining the place of prestige that Knives Out holds with this film. Star Wars fans should feel vindicated, Rian Johnson even treats his own creations like a joke.