Benoit Blanc returns to solve another crime in Rian Johnson’s cluttered but funny mystery.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival)
One of the more unexpectedly winning cinematic experiences of recent years, writer-director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out was a smart, affectionate and often very funny homage/deconstruction of Agatha Christie-style whodunnits. It was boosted by a killer ensemble cast headed by Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a sleuth so ingenious and perceptive that, given enough time, he might even one day solve the mystery of his truly singular accent. Granted, its attempts at class commentary were a bit strained (and it went on maybe a skosh too long), but for the most part it was the rare mystery that remained watchable even after you knew whodunnit, and served as a living rebuke to Kenneth Branagh’s leaden recent attempts to bring Christie’s actual works to the screen.
Thanks to its critical and commercial success, another Benoit Blanc mystery was all but inevitable, and it’s now arrived as Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. To get the suspense out of the way, the film is more or less worth the wait as Johnson, returning as writer and director, crafts another well-written, impeccably acted and undeniably elegant mystery-comedy romp. That said, while the wit and flair that were on display throughout the first film are back in spades, those aforementioned flaws are also back as well, and a little harder to politely overlook this time around.
Since one of the key pleasures of a mystery is watching the story unfold, I’ll stick mostly to mentioning the key characters involved. Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is an ambitious candidate for governor of Connecticut. Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), is a former model and current lifestyle entrepreneur with a successful line of sweatpants. Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a scientist working on a project that, if successful, could have staggering worldwide implications. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a gun-toting men’s rights activist who runs a hit YouTube channel out of his mother’s basement.
These seemingly disparate people are actually old friends and, as the film opens, they—along with Birdie’s long-suffering assistant (Jessica Henwick) and Duke’s hottie girlfriend (Madelyn Cline)—are summoned by celebrated tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), to his private Greek island for a weekend that will include an elaborate murder mystery game. As it turns out, two unexpected guests are also along for the ride. One is Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monae), another mutual acquaintance who was a former business partner of Miles’s until he betrayed her over a deal. The other is Blanc, who is happy for the distraction from the tedium of his pandemic-related quarantine, but somewhat baffled as to why exactly he was invited as he doesn’t know any of the others.
Suffice it to say, once the guests arrive at the island, drinks are consumed, bon mots are dropped, old tensions come to the surface and Blanc’s particular skill set is eventually put into service. The story that transpires is, like the first, a slick and twist-laden lark that navigates a fine line between celebrating and ribbing the conventions of the mystery genre. Also like the original, the details of the mystery and who did what to who and why are ultimately not that consequential in the end. Once again, the real triumph of the film is watching the eclectic cast as they bounce off of each other while delivering Johnson’s often-hilarious dialogue.
There are no real weak links in this bunch, but Hudson, who turns in her most endearing performance since Almost Famous as the spectacularly self-involved and clueless Birdie, and Monae, as the fiery and surprising Cassandra, are particular standouts. Once again, Craig serves as the delightfully eccentric center of the story, and his rants against a certain board game alone are worth the price of admission.
The problem with Glass Onion is that it occasionally succumbs to the bigger-is-better approach that often affects movie sequels. There are times when Johnson’s screenplay tries just a little too hard to be clever and twisty, and the strain sometimes shows. Likewise, the sociopolitical underpinnings about the dangers of unbridled capitalism feel as if they have been included more out of a sense of obligation than because of any deep feelings on Johnson’s part. The film also contains a number of high-profile cameo appearances, and while some of them are undeniably amusing, there is a self-congratulatory feeling to them that seems at odds with Johnson’s theoretical message about the dangers that can be wrought by people who have enough money and power to do whatever they want.
That said, there is still a lot to like about Glass Onion—the performances are strong, the screenplay and direction are witty and stylish and any film that takes its cues from the 1973 mystery-comedy The Last of Sheila deserves some accolades. If it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Knives Out, it still works quite well and should prove to be just as much of a crowd-pleaser. Hopefully the next time around, Johnson will have the confidence to tighten things up a bit and play around with the formula in order to give the ingenious Benoit Blanc a mystery that is truly worthy of such a singular character.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery premieres in limited theatrical release November 23rd, & on Netflix December 22nd.