' ' Cinema Romantico: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Monday, February 13, 2023

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

When we first glimpsed Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) in Rian Johnson’s original “Knives Out,” he was slung back in a chair, legs crossed, small smile on his face, as if he had already sized up everything and everyone in the room around him, an image befitting The Greatest Detective in the World. In “Glass Onion,” however, writer/director Rian Johnson’s “A Knives Out Mystery” follow-up, Blanc is introduced laying in the tub, the universal sign of melancholy. Indeed, it is May 2020, the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and even The World’s Greatest Detective is stuck at home, left to play mystery games with friends over zoom, in no way scratching his prominent sleuthing itch. All that changes, however, when he scores an invitation to the murder mystery party on the private Greek island of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Not many Hollywood movies have wanted to deal with the Pandemic, whether directly or indirectly, maybe because Hollywood is mostly just corporations for content these days and like most corporate bigwigs, they wanted everything to go back to normal too. Johnson, though, isn’t begging off. His original “Knives Out,” after all, was a social satire as much as a murder mystery, albeit not a completely successful one, overdetermined to fit Ana de Armas’s character with an invisible halo and make its class warfare commentary verbally insistent. “Glass Onion” still occasionally suffers from the latter, but has also, in its merry way, taken stock of the last three years in America which through terrible circumstances given an opportunity to remake itself as a more inclusive, affordable place and instead closed its hands around air. 

Bron’s murder mystery party includes not just Blanc but his five best friends from way back, The Disruptors, as he deems them, Claire (Kathryn Hahn), governor of Connecticut, Birdie (Kate Hudson), a fashion designer who Speaks the Truth by saying whatever comes into her head, social media influencer Duke (Dave Bautista), Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), who heads up the science department of Bron’s company, and Miles’s ex business partner Andi (Janelle Monáe), who no one seems to want there and who doesn’t even seem to want to be there herself, one of a gazillion mysterious subplots feeding into the biggest mystery of all. That they’re able to make this date given the established parameters of the coronavirus is on account of some undefined who-knows-what administered prior to their trip, the Svenborgia of COVID-19 remedies, I assume, referring to the country from NBC’s sitcom “30 Rock” that “only rich people know about.” Indeed, this murder mystery is quite consciously – deviously – a rich person’s Pandemic pod, like ex-cohabitants Kristin Cavallari and Jay Cutler laughing about being stuck in the Bahamas at the start of the outbreak in 2020, narcissists inoculated by their own frivolity. And Johnson ingeniously builds such frivolity into his screenplay via the first major twist, not to be revealed, the aperitif so Blanc can get to the meat and potatoes, or better yet the onion, the glass onion, peeling it back to see how the other half lives. And if you wonder why Bron puts up with Blanc when we discover that Blanc might not technically have even been invited, it’s amusingly evocative of any bargain basement tech bro’s god complex, so convinced of his own brilliance that he plans to outwit The World’s Greatest Detective.

There are myriad topical injections, true, but Johnson never shirks entertainment in “Glass Onion,” injecting plenty of that, too, in ways both big and small, from Daniel Craig’s bathing costume and Nathan Johnson’s joyfully sweeping score, like Maurice Jarre composing a theme song for Sandals®, to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, not merely an emblem of how even the signature masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance can essentially function like a shiny new speedboat to a fat cat but a device for a side-splitting recurring joke. Johnson’s blocking and framing are a joy to behold, numerous shots intricately including various characters, underlining the lively ensemble work and how in a movie where frequently one character gets an extended monologue, the reactions of other actors are just as enjoyable as the actor speaking, none more than Hahn, giving a masterclass in frenzied, harried, hilarious murder mystery expressions. Hudson infuses her character’s obliviousness with gleeful zest and Norton, who typically prefers serious roles, cuts loose in espousing so much corporate kumbaya. In a flashback scene, he is costumed to look like Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey of “Magnolia,” a showman with a painful lack of self-awareness, and that is how Norton plays it, just with a burlesque kind of twist. Bautista and Odom Jr., alas, have less and much less, respectively, to do. Monáe appears to have less to do, too, even if Johnson honors her striking visage with some breathtaking close-ups and costuming (Monáe’s “Glass Onion” white pantsuit > Chris Evans’s “Knives Out” white cable knit sweater), but that’s one of movie’s myriad feints and stop me before I say too much!

“Glass Onion” runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, which isn’t just too long, generally speaking, but can feel a little too long, partially because Johnson dangles so many strands that need tidying and partially because The Disruptors ultimately tend toward one note. And yet, just as Johnson builds frivolity into his opening crescendo, he builds The Disruptors’ pointed lack of depth into the closing crescendo too. It’s not so much that no one here is quite what they seem, as the saying goes, but less than they seem. And even if Johnson’s commendable bleeding heart still can’t prevent itself from forcing his characters to earnestly say the sort of lines that Toni Collette’s resistance socialite in the first “Knives Out” would have said for spoofery, he builds “Glass Onion” to hilariously semi-pulse-pounding finish nevertheless, where it’s heroes take stock of the world around them, realize the impetus for change is one destined to be co-opted by the 1%, and decide their only chance is to burn it all down.

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