I had a terrific time watching Glass Onion, writer-director Rian Johnson’s sequel to his huge 2019 hit Knives Out, which is only playing in theatres for one week before it moves to Netflix on December 23. I saw it in a crowded theatre full of enthusiasts yelling out their reactions and guffawing heartily at every gag. Appropriate for the holidays, it’s a movie the whole family can enjoy. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of those made anymore.
Of course, Glass Onion’s not in the same league as Knives Out. That was a uniquely wonderful film — there was no way Johnson could match it. It was an all-in-one triumph of entertainment — a crackling mystery, an effervescent comedy, a bright satire of American mores in terms of family, politics, race, and class, and a fabulous star vehicle for Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc, as well as a showcase for a breakout star (Ana de Armas) and a number of old-time stars and character actors who were given delightful roles including Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon.
On top of all that, it was a remarkably smart film about the mystery genre, both a celebration drawn from Johnson’s own fandom, and a critique of traditional detective fiction based on the worship of rational knowledge that could supposedly manage the chaos of modern life. Every other way of “knowing” or cognitively making sense of the world is shown to be as good or better in Knives Out. If you ever wondered why the film begins with a beautiful slow-motion shot of the rich family’s two German shepherds out on the estate, running past the camera, it’s because the German shepherds know all along who did the murder, having sniffed him out the night of the killing. They just can’t tell anybody.
Glass Onion takes on the figure of the entrepreneurial genius, or rather the worship of billionaire morons like Elon Musk, and attacks it with glee. This is very funny in spots, but there’s no way to recreate the same kind of tight thematic coherence that Knives Out had.
Still, it’s hilarious when Benoit Blanc — who’s been in a terrible funk without a new case to solve, spending all his time soaking in the bathtub with his concerned male life partner tapping on the door — is invited to the private Greek island of Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Bron is such a celebrity entrepreneur, as CEO of Alpha Industries, he’s called “Miles” by everyone. The island weekend is supposed to involve a Miles-designed murder party that’s so brilliant and tricky and complex, it’ll take Miles’s group of friends all weekend to figure out whodunnit. Blanc solves the mystery almost immediately after they arrive. “What the fuck are we supposed to do the whole rest of the weekend?” fumes Miles.
Naturally, what they’ll be doing is trying to solve an actual murder. Blanc warns Miles that having a murder party among a group of friends with so much banked resentment and bad history is like putting a loaded gun on the table and turning out the lights. (And hearing this you just know the lights are going out, later on, fulfilling his prophecy.)
Miles is the obvious target, because in order to become so very rich, he’s callously betrayed or is planning to betray every one of his old friends in the name of smart business tactics. And they’re all so desperate to stay on good terms with somebody so monied and influential, they smile queasily and continue to fawn on him.
The only exception is Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe), Miles’s former best friend and business partner whom he cut out of their corporation when she tried to stop him from going into production on a dangerously life-threatening new fuel. He also stole her idea, written on a cocktail napkin, that created the hugely profitable business in the first place. Everyone is wondering why she’s been invited to the island, why’s she’s actually come to the island, and what she intends to do in terms of thoroughly justified revenge. She certainly looks mad as hell.
The other friends are Miles’s head scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr), who’s been developing the experimental fuel but has told Miles it’s nowhere near ready for public use; Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), who’s running a tense race for the senate; catty ex-model and fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), whose tweets are so toxic her harassed assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) has confiscated her phone; and Twitch streaming star and men’s rights advocate Duke Cody (David Bautista), who brings his sensational young girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), to the island in spite of — or because of? — her ongoing flirtation with Miles.
Noah Segan, who was very funny as Trooper Wagner in Knives Out, plays seemingly permanent slacker island guest Derol, whom Miles says is “going through some stuff” and won’t be participating in any of the activities. Derol wanders through scenes periodically, saying “I’m not here!”
Norton and Hudson are the standouts in the cast of frenemies, both demonstrating very sharp comic timing. And Craig is fabulous once again as Blanc. Just one memorable highlight of his performance is his deadpan appearance in his resort lounge-and-swimwear ensemble — a short-sleeved, blue-and-white-striped, jacket-and-shorts seersucker suit accessorized with a sporty yellow neckerchief. There are also a number of amusing celebrity cameos that I’ll leave you to appreciate as they pop up.
The movie takes a while to get going while all the frenemy characters are introduced in separate scenes, receiving their ridiculously elaborate invitations to the party in the form of multilevel riddle boxes that are a huge challenge to open. Routinely cutting Miles down to size, Blanc later irks him by referring to his “childishly simple” puzzle boxes.
Monáe has the biggest role of the frenemies, essentially costarring with Craig as de Armas did in Knives Out. Though she’s an arresting-looking woman with a nice glinting glare, she’s not a gifted actor, and can’t carry all the weight the narrative puts on her. She’s fine, but no more than that.
The glass onion of the title refers to the bar that was the friends’ hangout before they all made it big, catalyzed by Andi Brand’s brainpower and the X factor that new friend Miles brings to the group. “Somehow, he made things happen,” says Brand, and the mystery of Miles is what is the source of his success. What makes him worth billions?
It also refers to the transparent sphere erected on top of Miles’s mansion, which looks complex but, as Blanc point out, is something you can see right through.
And of course the Beatles’ song “Glass Onion” plays by the end.
Which makes it pretty funny that Netflix, “in keeping with its long-standing practice,” refuses any transparency when it comes to reporting grosses, an absurd attempt at mystifying what’s bound to become perfectly plain, at least in this case. According to all educated guesswork, Glass Onion is making boatloads of money.
It’s a grotesque extension of Hollywood’s typical shiftiness about reported profits, generally in order to avoid paying people what they’re owed. Hit movies that somehow stay in the red forever are a long-standing film industry “creative accounting” fraud.
But at any rate, you’ve got a very short window if you want to see Glass Onion on the big screen. It’s the latest Netflix experiment: seeing if enough people can be driven to the theaters under the pressure of a one-week-only release to make up for the money that would’ve been earned in a regular general release. Amazingly, all the major exhibitors cooperated on this deal, though Glass Onion was the most surefire bet to earn a lot of money at the box office of any film coming out in 2022. Perhaps they’re happy to be in on any deal that includes a theatrical release in this increasingly all-streaming era.
If you miss Glass Onion this week, you have to wait almost a month to catch it on Netflix at Christmas. Whether that’s a shrewd idea or a daffy one remains to be seen. The Miles Brons of the entertainment industry have millions of expensive ideas and like to try them out this way, willy-nilly, seeing what if anything sticks.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
This article was first published on Jacobin.
Featured image: Still from Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Photo: Netflix