“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a bit of a clunky title. But the film itself, which only ever calls itself “Glass Onion” on screen, is a delightful trifle of a mystery movie, a laugh-out-loud comedy that deserves to be a mass market theatrical hit. Sadly, it won’t be, as Netflix is only screening it for a week in movie houses before pulling it back to arrive on streaming for Christmas.
Perhaps “Glass Onion” is better experienced on streaming — at least philosophically.
But perhaps “Glass Onion” is better experienced on streaming — at least philosophically. After all, this is a movie about a group of horrendously louche nouveau riche breaking all the rules mid-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 especially timely.
The original “Knives Out” was a brilliant reimagining of the 1920s-era “Manor House Mystery” made popular by Agatha Christie. Franchise creator Rian Johnson correctly recognized that the American 1% are the modern-day equivalent of the post-World War I aristocracy, and that setting murders within their estates mirrored Christie’s own era. The southern accented Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is Johnson’s modern Hercule Poirot, a fish out of water among the elite who is seen by his quarry as an amusing sideshow. (Obviously, this backfires.)
The first film was very appropriately set in an English-style estate in New England, where the family looked down upon Blanc’s accent while underestimating him. The follow-up is less of a twisty whodunit and more of a broader comedy, but Johnson once again takes aim at the super rich. This time we’re skewering Silicon Valley moguls, with Edward Norton as tech billionaire Miles Bron. He invites “old friends,” most of whom have risen by clinging to his coattails, to a Greek Island with the meta-intention of spending the weekend playing a murder mystery game based on the Christie tales.
Johnson starts the story at the end of May 2020, with characters miserably stuck in lockdown. Would-be senator Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is doing TV interviews dressed only from the waist up. 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 500+ people, which somehow includes Yo-Yo Ma. And all of them are 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 summoned to attend the party as well. At first it seems like Bron has decided to up the ante by having a real-life detective at his game. However, when it turns out the detective was secretly invited by someone else, things start to get interesting. And Blanc reveals a real crime is actually afoot.
To reveal the killer in the party’s midst would spoil the fun, but unlike in the original, this sequel is centered less around 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 back, and scenes are replayed multiple times from different character viewpoints, the story becomes less about getting justice and more about the stupidity of its allegedly “genius” protagonists. Bron is both a white man who stole the hard work of his Black partner, Andi (Janelle Monae), and passed it off as his own, and the kind of idiot who regularly uses the wrong five-dollar word in sentences in his desperation to sound smart.
Unlike in the original, this sequel is centered less around figuring out the clues.
Neither does Johnson spare enablers, like Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), the scientist whose job it is to rubber-stamp whatever tomfoolery Bron puts in front of him. There are points when one almost wants to feel sorry for how miserable these lackeys are after selling their souls. But then they all declare again how nice the emperor’s robes are today, and that sympathy vanishes in a puff of island vapor. Even hardworking employees, like Birdie’s assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), are ultimately only looking out for their own self-interests. Johnson seems determined to leave us with very few people to root for.
But with few heroes, Johnson puts that giant Netflix budget to good use, filling out the cast with hilarious and sometimes bizarre cameos. (This film happens to be the final on screen appearances 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 that is so subtle you might miss it. There’s at least hopes Hugh Grant, appearing in a 30-second spot covered in flour and mixing sour dough, will be granted more screen time in the next film.
That being said, “Glass Onion” is as wonderfully enjoyable as its predecessor, even though there’s little need to connect the two. (Why not just rebrand them “Benoit Blanc Mysteries,” Netflix? Too simple a solution, perhaps.) Even if you aren’t able (or willing) to rush out to theaters on Turkey Day to see it on the big screen, you will almost certainly enjoy it on the small. And there you also have the pause button at your disposable in case of missed clues. No matter how it is viewed, however, Johnson’s commentary on the ultra-rich remains as sharp as ever.