“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a bit of a clunky title. But the film itself, which only calls itself “Glass Onion” on screen, is a delightful trifle of a mystery film, a laugh-out-loud comedy that deserves to be a mass-market theatrical hit. Unfortunately, it won’t be, as Netflix is only showing it in cinemas for a week before pulling it back to stream before Christmas.
Perhaps “Glass Onion” will be better perceived on streaming – at least philosophically.
But perhaps ‘Glass Onion’ will be better perceived on streaming – at least philosophically. After all, this is a movie about a group of horribly seedy nouveau riche who break all the rules in the middle of the pandemic to play a murder mystery game on an island in the Aegean Sea. And its message – that billionaires are the dumbest among us – feels very timely.
The original “Knives Out” was a brilliant reinvention of the 1920s “Manor House Mystery” popularized by Agatha Christie. Franchise creator Rian Johnson rightly recognized that the American 1% is the modern day equivalent of the post-World War I aristocracy, and that the commission of murders on their estates was reflective of Christie’s own time. The southern-accented Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is Johnson’s modern-day Hercule Poirot, a fish out of water among the elite who is seen as a funny sideshow by his quarry. (This, of course, backfires.)
Appropriately, the first film was set on an English-style estate in New England, where the family looked down on Blanc’s accent while underestimating him. The follow-up is less of a twisty whodunit and more of a broader comedy, but Johnson is again targeting the super rich. This time we cross Silicon Valley moguls, with Edward Norton as tech billionaire Miles Bron. He invites “old friends,” most of whom got up by clinging to his coat, to a Greek island with the intention of spending the weekend playing a murder mystery game based on the Christie stories .
Johnson begins the story in late May 2020, with characters woefully trapped in lockdown. Senator-to-be Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) does TV interviews dressed only from the waist down. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a YouTuber fighting for MRA clicks; Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a celebrity who just made a killing on her new sweatpants line, partying in her Upper West Side apartment with her “pod” of over 500 people, somehow including Yo-Yo Ma . And they’re all only too happy to hide out and party on an island with Miles while the rest of the world suffers.
These characters are not good people. Except, of course, our hero, Blanc, who is also summoned to attend the party. At first it seems that Bron has decided to up the ante by having a real detective on his game. However, when it turns out that the detective has been secretly invited by someone else, things start to get interesting. And Blanc reveals that a real crime is going on.
Revealing the killer in the middle of the party would spoil the fun, but unlike the original, this sequel is less about figuring out the clues. Not that the case Blanc is trying to solve doesn’t matter. But as the layers of this glass onion peel off and scenes are played multiple times from different points of view, the story becomes less about getting justice and more about the stupidity of the supposedly “genius” protagonists. Bron is both a white man who stole the hard work of his black partner, Andi (Janelle Monae), and did it for his own work, and the kind of idiot who regularly uses the wrong five-dollar word in sentences in his desperation om sounds smart.
Unlike the original, this sequel is less about figuring out the clues.
Johnson also spares no facilitators, such as Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), the scientist whose job it is to approve of whatever silliness Bron throws at him. There are times when you almost want to feel sorry for how miserable these lackeys are after they’ve sold their souls. But then they all declare again how beautiful the imperial robes are today, and that sympathy disappears in a puff of island vapor. Even hard-working employees, like Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), are ultimately only out for their own self-interest. Johnson seems determined to leave us with very few people to root for.
But with few heroes, Johnson argues huge Netflix budget put to good use, filling the cast with hilarious and sometimes bizarre cameos. (This film happens to be the last onscreen appearance of both Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury, ending their careers as random footnotes in a Zoom call.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt also has a cameo, but one so subtle that you might miss him. If anything, there’s hope that Hugh Grant, who appears in a 30-second spot covered in flour and mixing leaven, will get more screen time in the next film.
That said, “Glass Onion” is just as wonderfully enjoyable as its predecessor, even if there’s little reason to connect the two. (Why not just rename them Benoit Blanc Mysteries, Netflix? Too simple a solution, perhaps.) Even if you’re not able (or willing) to run to the cinema on Turkey Day to see it on the big screen, will almost certainly enjoy it on the little one. And there you also have the pause button at your disposal in case of missed clues. However it is viewed, Johnson’s commentary on the ultra-rich remains sharp as ever.