This review originally published in September out of the Toronto International Film Festival. We are recirculating it timed to Glass Onion’s streaming debut on Netflix.
The rich are richer in Glass Onion, the effervescent sequel to Knives Out that just had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and arguably more awful — or, at least, awful in grander and more visible ways. While Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunit focused on the stunted relatives of a famed novelist, people who at least put up some pretense of respectability, his new one turns its attention to a group of “disruptors” who are prominent enough to practice their respective grifts right out in the open. Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is the governor of Connecticut and an aspiring senator who talks tough on CNN while quietly approving untested tech in exchange for donor money. Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) is head scientist at the company, Alpha, that’s responsible for that untested tech, and has rushed timelines and skipped safety procedures at the behest of his boss. Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a media personality turned sweatband brand owner who’s so prone to viral scandals that her assistant, Peg (Jessica Henwick), is the keeper of her phone. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a social-media star who’s taken a turn to the alt-right, using his ever-present gun and his much younger girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), as props.
Wealthiest and most repellent of them all is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who’s the host of the weekend getaway during which the mystery unfolds, a mogul and supposed genius who doesn’t actually seem to do much except self-mythologize and use his money to push people around. He owes more than a bit to Elon Musk, but these crumbling pillars of contemporary society are all designed to feel at least a little familiar. (Maybe too familiar, in the case of Hudson, who’s an absolute scream as the vapid Birdie, but whose activewear brand has been privy to labor-abuse accusations not unlike those of her character’s company, a convergence that’s more of a joke at the audience’s expense than her own.) Glass Onion is bigger and more precisely designed than Knives Out, but what makes it a more satisfying movie is that it sits with its characters more rather than immediately showing off their decay. Instead, theirs is the kind of hollowness that comes from a lifetime of smaller moral compromises, until suddenly you’re on a Greek island with some old friends, contemplating murder.
Obviously, there is a murder, though it happens eventually rather than toward the start of the film, tensions simmering over the course of an annual gathering on Miles’s private Greek island, where he’s built a delightfully hideous mansion that includes a see-through dome filled with billionaire bachelor-pad décor — a douchebag Taj Mahal. This year, Miles intends to throw a murder-mystery party, though he has two surprise guests. Andi (Janelle Monáe), the former business partner who unsuccessfully sued him when he booted her from their company, wasn’t expected to show. And Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the master detective from Knives Out, wasn’t invited at all, and yet somehow became the recipient of one of the custom puzzle boxes Miles had shipped out to his chosen attendees. Craig’s evident delight in playing Blanc, with his neckerchiefs and Southern-fried accent, is infectious, and Glass Onion’s longer wind-up allows glimpses into the character’s personal life, which include some random but enjoyable cameos. Johnson allows events to spin out to a pivotal party sequence that’s made jittery by its slightly too quick editing, and then takes us back to the start, revisiting scenes from different angles and with new information.
For all that it’s intricately constructed and set in an extravagant Mediterranean location, Glass Onion has an underlying context that’s not exotic at all — it’s a movie that takes place toward the start of the pandemic without feeling consumed by it. Instead, COVID serves as a backdrop but also the source of some key character details, from the famous painting that Miles has managed to get on loan from a museum to the useless mesh face mask that Birdie prefers. Movies taking place during the early days of our global acquaintanceship with the novel coronavirus have tended to all feel the same, because so many of us were just sitting at home, feeling frightening and isolated and terribly bored. But the characters in Glass Onion aren’t the kind that would feel like they’d be subjected to those same rules, even the ones who consider themselves nominally more responsible. They’re basically doing a short, and very high-end, version of forming a pod, accelerating right into the dramas that accompany the meltdown of so many similar arrangements. Unlike Knives Out, which verged on the self-congratulatory in its politics, Glass Onion allows its class critiques to be built into the characterizations of its rogues’ gallery of suspects, who are also living through a moment that temporarily united so much of the world, but who are not like the rest of us at all.
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