Synopsis: During the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaire Miles Bron invites his five closest friends and detective Benoit Blanc to his private island mansion, the Glass Onion, to participate in a “murder mystery.”
Stars: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista
Director: Rian Johnson
Running Length: 140 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: As much as the penny-pinching algorithms may tell the heads of movie studios that only established property franchise fare does well at the box office in this more restrictive movie-going environment, I still have a feeling that viewers crave more original work than the tired, conventionally familiar films arriving in theaters. After all, you can see the numbers for superhero movies, and long-running series start to dwindle and crack, leaving room for new material to have the breathing room it did in the late ’90s and 2000s. The timing couldn’t be better.
It’s partly why 2019’s Knives Out was such sweet relief, and I think it set the stage for what was to come, even though it came out pre-pandemic. Here was a film packed with stars in an old-fashioned murder mystery chock full of trickery and misdirects. Fun to see with a large audience, it provided the same adrenaline rush of the superhero movie without having that dull sameness of knowing what to expect at each turn. A box-office hit that nearly founds its way to a nomination for Best Picture, it still landed writer/director Rian Johnson a justified nod for Best Original Screenplay. Further, Johnson and star Daniel Craig had worked to create such a memorable character in Southern detective Benoit Blanc that both signed up for additional features in a new deal with Netflix.
The second Knives Out Mystery featuring Blanc, Glass Onion, has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year for Netflix. The streaming service has chosen to release it for a week in theaters before its debut later in December. This gives audiences wanting that in-house experience the opportunity to get off the couch and make it happen, while others can hedge their bets on not having plot elements spoiled for them. Rest assured, you’ll get nothing from me but the bare minimum of details. While Johnson’s follow-up isn’t as delicately weaved as his original, it’s another fun nut to crack because of an entire production overly eager to please.
As the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, four friends receive a puzzle box from their friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton, Alita: Battle Angel), which, when opened, contains an invite to their yearly gathering at whatever exorbitant paradise retreat he has planned. Friends since their early days before they were successful, they each owe some debt to Miles, or perhaps they are in debt to Miles – it’s not clear at first. Two more boxes have turned up at the doorsteps of Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe, The Glorias), Miles’s former business partner recently unceremoniously bumped out over a dispute on the future of the company, and Benoit Blanc (Craig, No Time to Die), the legendary detective who had been lamenting his boredom to a quartet of cameo-ing celebrities playing themselves (the first four of many either appearing onscreen or shamelessly name-dropped throughout as a running joke).
Arriving on the island, online influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista, My Spy), fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, Mother’s Day), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express), and governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn, A Bad Moms Christmas), acquiesce to their gauche hosts’ every whim, fawning over his theories and tacky tastes while ignoring how out of touch he is with the real world. Many monetarily benefit from his support, so why upset the apple cart? Andi isn’t there to make nice, though and takes every opportunity to stir up trouble. The observant Blanc mostly sits back in the sun and, like most good mystery sleuths, happens to be listening in on conversations that reveal more information than they should.
A series of events place a dead body on the ground and cast one party member as the murderer. Clues point to them, but an extended flashback fills in plot holes we’d noticed in the movie’s first half. This is when Johnson finally turns on the zest in Glass Onion and makes the film start to zing forward. Until then, it’s been a formal gathering of unlikable snooties demonstrating why they should be the ones to get the axe first – we aren’t sure who deserves it most. Johnson wisely focuses the flashback on an interesting character and takes the film in a direction I didn’t see coming. There are some subtle elements of cheating, and eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot one huge clue that gets contradicted almost immediately. This is one place where watching the movie at home may extend the mystery a while longer. Watching it on the big screen made this clue stand out like a spotlight was shining on it.
Mostly, Glass Onion’s enjoyment comes down to the cast, and for all of the hoopla surrounding the casting, Johnson has gathered the right mix of talents for this dish. Craig’s original creation for Knives Out was smooth and fun, with his accent dripping like molasses. In Glass Onion, he’s leaned in even further, which didn’t always work for me. Now, the accent is ‘seyw theyyywick Iowa hahd a hud tyme taykewin heym seeereuuuslee”. Kudos to one major reveal (with the aid of another acting cameo) that gives Blanc some personal backstory. Norton goes a bit over the top, as only Norton can, and Hudson is quite fun as a ditzy designer that had to be drawn a bit from Paris Hilton.
The film hinges on Monáe’s performance, and that’s all I can say. I had heard the same thing going in and was just as frustrated as you are by the lack of additional info. Trust me when I tell you, you’ll be glad to know as little as I did. Monáe continues to be someone you want to see more of onscreen, and Glass Onion is another level up in a career ascent that has been steady but not so rapid that it blows up before she’s ready. It’s the trickiest part in the film and, like the Ana de Armas character in the original, almost the entire crux of the evening depends on what you think of them.
Denouements are the satisfying conclusions of the murder mysteries created by celebrated mystery authors and screenwriters. As strong as Glass Onion is, I felt its finale doesn’t have quite the bite it wants. Or I wanted. There’s some convenience included in the ending that felt out of alignment with the orchestration of the work, and I’m not sure if the way that Johnson had crafted the screenplay if he’d have ever gotten to a perfect conclusion. You’ll want to take a bite out of this Glass Onion, though, because the Knives Out Mysteries are just getting started, and this is a fine follow-up to a stellar opener.