The Rise of the Whodunit: Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Rise of the Whodunit: Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion
The trailer for Glass Onion (Netflix/YouTube)

After a decades-long dearth, theater audiences are suddenly spoiled for choice of whodunit mysteries. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is the second whodunit written and directed by Rian Johnson, after his acclaimed 2019 Knives Out, with a third promised.

Knives Out had a pleasantly old-fashioned feel, and, in a way, it truly is from another time, released in November 2019, only a few months before the world changed. Life has moved so fast since then that even the ubiquitous masking dramatized in Glass Onion — set in the summer of 2020 — itself seems long ago. And while Knives Out had a conventional theatrical release, Glass Onion appeared for just a single week in theaters before its streaming debut on Netflix just before Christmas.

Glass Onion’s opulent Greek-island setting is also vastly different from the autumnal preppy Massachusetts digs of the previous movie. But the one necessary catalyst has returned: Detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, who has aged out of his James Bond role and is aging marvelously into the Southern-fried, cravat-wearing detective whose corn-pone demeanor masks a probing intellect and psychological insight.

But when we first meet him, the master detective is amusingly out of sorts. Blanc is riding out the pandemic in the bathtub, playing the multiplayer video game Among Us on Zoom, with the squares filled by actors in mystery-related cameos. Fortunately, his bath is interrupted by a special delivery, and suddenly he’s back in the game.

The best detective work comes at the beginning, with the delivery of actual puzzle boxes whose convoluted contents hide an invitation to billionaire Miles Bron’s private-island getaway weekend. From there we get bits of The Purloined Letter, And Then There Were None, and a lot of The Last of Sheila, an overlooked 1970s thriller that Johnson has cited as an inspiration for Glass Onion. Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, who appeared in the Zoom cameos, cowrote Sheila with the one and only Anthony Perkins.

Glass Onion is named after a 1968 Beatles song but feels more in tune with millennial culture than did Knives Out. (A working knowledge of Twitch, Instagram, and Moviefone will help.) Those millennials are probably waiting to catch it on Netflix.

Miles, played by Edward Norton, is your standard billionaire visionary and founder of something called Alpha. Every year, he invites his fellow old friends and “disruptors,” who hung out with him at the Glass Onion bar in the good old days, to his Greek-island paradise.

They are all hanging on to what Andi (played by a luminous Janelle Monáe) refers to as Miles’ “golden tits.” Andi was an early business partner of Miles before being pushed out. She claimed intellectual ownership of the company’s founding idea, which she sketched out on a now-missing napkin, but lost the case at trial — a trial in which the so-called “disruptors” meekly testified on behalf of Miles.

So, what’s she doing on the island, besides being a wet blanket and a vague threat? And was Blanc invited along merely to play Miles’ promised murder mystery game?

The murder game is abruptly curtailed, after which Blanc warns Miles that staging the game on an island with people inclined to resent him was “[l]ike putting a loaded gun on the table and turning off the lights.” The lights do go out — but not before the first body has turned up for real.

Andi and the detective are a bit set apart from the “disruptors.” Dave Bautista plays Duke, “a men’s rights YouTuber” who warns of the “breastification of America” from his mother’s basement and brings his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) for Miles to gawk at, and perhaps more than that.

There’s also the governor of Connecticut, Claire (Kathryn Hahn), whose U.S. Senate campaign is being financed by Miles; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.) the brilliant, conflicted scientist pressured to sign off on Miles’ latest brainstorm; fashion designer Birdie Jay, played by Kate Hudson; and Birdie’s assistant Peg, played by the attention-getting actress Jessica Henwick, who is constantly putting out Birdie’s social media conflagrations.

It’s jokier than the first movie, including the “minefield of malapropisms” issuing from Miles’ mouth, though at the expense of character development, save for Blanc, who cracks up, chills out, and even flashes moral outrage. It’s also exciting for most of its two-hour-and-20-minute run. A handgun and spear gun appear, and both are fired. There is a 20-minute blackout, and a cellphone that won’t stop pinging, to keep things on edge.

As in Knives Out, the same scenes are often run back from another actor’s point of view, one who, say, was eavesdropping from the bushes. The cameos aren’t just for comic relief but actually advance the story. Even actor Jeremy Renner’s fictional hot sauce, “Renning Hot,” has a function.

As Blanc suggests, the solution is in plain sight, though it arrives on a road with plenty of twists, some of which get untwisted. The interior décor of Miles’ vast modernistic estate captures the unreality of the very rich, an edifice topped by (yes) a glass onion.

Yet, overall, the movie lacks the thrilling feel of menace that Ana de Armas’ nurse character Marta experienced in Knives Out. By around hour two, things begin to flag, and the search for a pivotal item lacks, as Blanc might say, panache.

Knives Out was a labor of love for Johnson, who worked on the story for a decade. The virtues of that slow cooking were evident in the screenplay. Glass Onion was a rush job in comparison, and perhaps the ingredients didn’t have time to congeal. The long monologues have a point, but they’re still long. And, speaking of glass, it seems like one piece in particular could have drawn Blanc’s attention earlier.

But if the movie lacks the narrative momentum of the original, it makes up for it with sheer fun and good humor. Johnson also makes the first effective use I can remember of a hoary TV mystery cliché.

Just like Johnson’s previous mystery hid a tale of immigration policy within its murder mystery, his new one has an undercurrent of “eat the rich” liberalism, a theme that seems to be going around Hollywood of late. But it’s nothing you haven’t seen and tolerated before, a slight annoyance that doesn’t ruin the movie. Look forward to the third in the series in 2024.

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