Glass Onion review: The Knives Out sequel loses its sharp edge

A lot of things worked together to make Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunit Knives Out a hit. Like Johnson’s loving magpie’s eye for a discarded genre, ripe for picking. Or the spectacle of Daniel Craig cutting loose as camp detective Benoit Blanc, cheekily jumping the gun on the end of his tenure as James Bond. And then there’s the top-to-bottom immaculate casting: Don Johnson is a sleazy, useless, gold-digging husband, because of course he is!

But perhaps the most significant boost to the film’s success is the perfection of its Pinterest-ready mood board, expressed in its brilliant production design, costuming, and cinematography. Chunky fall knits and sharp tweed overcoats; Jamie Lee Curtis resplendent in fuchsia, topped with a shock of white hair; Chris Evans’ growling 1970s BMW and beloved cabled sweater; overcast skies and low, cool November light; a halo of knives as decor; a universe of creepy knickknacks, all stuffed into a creaking New England mansion, somberly redolent of the Old World. (But as Rian Johnson’s script wickedly notes, purchased from a Pakistani real-estate mogul in the 1980s.) It’s a clever, funny movie that holds its self-consciousness at just the right distance, and its style is on point.

Consider the mood board for the Netflix-funded sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which once again explores mind games and murder most foul among the most privileged. This time around, it’s a Porsche hypercar rotating on a roof-mounted turntable; azure seas and skies under a blazing Greek sun; personalized cocktail glasses and chiming smartphones; glass sculptures and gizmos adorning a fantasy tech palace with a huge, onion-shaped cupola; loud prints, loose linens, neckerchiefs, sun hats, and a codpiece-mounted handgun.

Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

All of which is to say that Glass Onion is a brighter, louder, more extroverted movie than the first Knives Out. Its themes and fashion flirt with brazen, cartoony silliness. This time around, Johnson aims for big ideas and big laughs — this is a funnier movie, almost an outright comedy at times, and a broad one at that. Where Knives Out targets the defensive pretension of inherited wealth, Glass Onion mocks the desperate peacocking of new money, in a world of tech billionaires, influencers, and flash-in-the-pan politicians. As before, though, the gentlemanly Benoit Blanc is here to strip these people’s illusions away with comic courtesy.

Also as before, Glass Onion starts as a murder mystery which seems like it might lack an actual murder. The death of crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) in Knives Out is investigated at different times as a suicide or an accident, and Johnson delighted in saving the nature of the crime and the identity of the criminal until the very end.

This time, there’s only play-acting. Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has made an unimaginable fortune from a vague tech platform called Alpha, has invited a motley group of friends to his private Greek island for their annual reunion. He calls them his “disruptors”: a stressed liberal politician (Kathryn Hahn), a scientific genius who works for Bron (Leslie Odom Jr.), a crass meninist Twitch streamer (Dave Bautista), and an air-headed former model (Kate Hudson) with a line in fancy sweatpants, which is booming because it’s 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic has everyone working from home.

Edward Norton in the foreground, looking puzzled in a grey t-shirt on a Greek island beach, with an extravagantly dressed cast lined up behind him including Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr, Kathryn Hahn, and Dave Bautista

Image: Netflix

Everyone is surprised at the arrival of Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), who built Alpha with Miles, but whom he ruthlessly cut out of the company. Everyone seems equally surprised when Benoit Blanc is invited along, Blanc included. But Bron has planned a murder mystery party where he will be the “victim,” so at least the world’s greatest detective fits the theme. Revealing any more would interfere with the intricate clockwork of Johnson’s scheme — but of course someone ends up dead for real, and someone has an interest in making sure there’s a celebrity sleuth on the scene.

While Johnson is a deep admirer of Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries, the gamesmanship of their construction isn’t enough for him. He feels the need to play games with the game of whodunit itself. What if the murderer didn’t commit the murder? What if the victim isn’t the target? Rather than lifting the curtain on his artifice at the conclusion, as he did in Knives Out, in Glass Onion, he takes a big gamble and lifts it halfway through. At that point, he flips the script and rewinds the plot to play again from the start, with every event and many characters cast in a new light.

Structurally, it’s quite a magic trick. Some of the devices he uses to pull it off are pretty hoary, but that choice seems suitable for such a winking, theatrical enterprise, and the work is sound: All the pieces fit together. The gamble has other consequences, however. Some characters are deepened and enriched by the shift in perspective, but others are flattened. Crucially, genre conventions require Johnson to pull off a reveal at the conclusion to match the surprise of the twist he engineered halfway through, but when he gets there, it turns out he’s run himself out of options, and the payoff doesn’t land as it should.

Janelle Monáe looks scared in a dark empty corridor with modern art in the wall. In the background a shadowy figure can just be seen

Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

By then, though, Johnson is less interested in fingering the murderer than in taking down the characters’ whole world in a blaze of glory. In Knives Out, made in the immigration-obsessed Trump era, he asked whose country America is, anyway, and picked a side with his stunning closing shot. In Glass Onion, made amid the dissociation of COVID, he just lashes out left and right at a series of easy targets: the utopian fantasies of Big Tech, the hypocrisy of liberal politics, the fatuousness of online image-making. It’s muddled stuff, embodied in a gaggle of callow caricatures that he struggles to establish a natural kinship between.

They still pop off the screen, though, assisted by Jenny Eagan’s extravagant costumes. Bautista manages to be both boorish and puppyish as Duke, the insecure man-child trapped in the body of a rocky outcrop. Hudson is hilarious as Birdie, a queen of glamorous idiocy who’s been canceled for her tweets so many times that her assistant won’t let her touch her phone. Norton, as the absurd Elon Musk-alike, mines a deep seam of douchiness without dimming his immense charisma — it’s a joy to see him back at the center of a big, flashy Hollywood production, and to be reminded of what a star he is. Monáe, in the most sophisticated and multifaceted role, shines with a sincerity, a simmering anger, and a realness that the others cannot touch.

This is also a film in which we get to watch Daniel Craig play Among Us in the bath with the late Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim over Zoom. The film riffs on Craig’s macho Bond image in some delightful, surprising ways, but Craig and Johnson both push the dapper detective, with his pronounced Southern drawl, in a more cartoonish direction — away from Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot, and toward his parody descendant, The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau. Unlike Peter Sellers’ idiot investigator, Benoit Blanc is no fool, but as he descends into a swimming pool dressed in a striped two-piece bathing suit and a cravat, he does look a bit like a figure of fun.

Does it matter? Not so much. A great sleuth, like Peter Falk’s Columbo — to whom Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne will soon pay tribute in their detective series Poker Face — does not need to have hidden depths. They are the keys that turn the lock, open the door, and let the light in on our failings. We don’t need to know why they do it, but we do ask they do it with style. As flashy, fun, star-studded entertainment, Glass Onion certainly does that.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery opens in limited release on Nov. 23, and debuts on Netflix Dec. 23.