Producers: Ram Bergman and Rian Johnson Director: Rian Johnson Screenplay: Rian Johnson Cast: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Ethan Hawke, Noah Segan, Jackie Hoffman and Dallas Roberts Distributor: Netflix
In a Zoom conversation near the start of Rian Johnson’s sequel to his surprise smash “Knives Out,” two of the participants appearing on the computer screen of tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton) are Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim. Their presence is a clue to what “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” aspires to be. On the one hand it’s meant as an Agatha Christie-style detective tale—after all, in “Murder She Wrote” Lansbury was effectively a modern-day Miss Marple. Sondheim’s presence might be construed as just a nod to her seminal performance in “Sweeney Todd,” but it’s really much more. The great Broadway composer-lyricist was also a puzzle aficionado, and collaboration with the like-minded Anthony Perkins wrote “The Last of Sheila,” Herbert Ross’s 1973 film that, with its Mediterranean setting and wickedly convoluted murder plot, was no doubt an inspiration for Johnson.
But this is a “Knives Out” mystery, and so the detective is the famed Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who’s among the guests invited, via a complicated box puzzle, to an elite bash on Bron’s private Greek island, the Glass Onion—so called from a magnificent transparent globe atop the main building (which also houses his prize sports car) in 2019, just as the pandemic has taken hold. But there’s a mysterious element at once—Bron claims not to have invited him at all.
Nonetheless he joins the other guests, who, thanks to a special spray administered by Bron’s aide (Ethan Hawke), can go mask-less for the duration. All are in some sense so-called disrupters, and to some extent dependent on Bron’s largesse. There’s Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), an ordinary housewife promoted as battling corruption and running for the Senate. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a muscled, crudely macho internet sensation who totes his gun even when swimming and is joined by his bosomy young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), while ditzy Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is an erstwhile supermodel and designer of a popular brand of sweatpants; she’s accompanied by her aide Peg (Jessica Henwick). Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is a brilliant scientist employed by Bron.
There’s one guest who, like Blanc, is unexpected—Cassandra, or Andi, Brand (Janelle Monáe), Bron’s former business partner. She was swindled in a hostile breakup of their partnership and thought unlikely to accept his invitation to come and work out their problems. But she has.
Bron announces his intention to amuse the motley crew, like the host in “Sheila,” with a game. Here it’s the old murder ploy: Bron will be the victim, and it will be up to the “survivors” to identify the perpetrator. (The game devised by James Coburn in the Sondheim-Perkins concoction was more cerebral and clever.) Naturally a real murder does occur, instigating a process of ratiocination on Blanc’s part that results in the revelation of the culprit and a kind of justice.
It would be unfair to reveal anything about the intricacies of the plot, save to say that Johnson takes advantage of lots of flashbacks and repetition of scenes from different perspectives to fashion an ultra-complicated scenario to defy solution by viewers, though not, of course, by Blanc. Truth be told, he also indulges in a couple of hoary tricks that connoisseurs of detective fiction would sneer at, deeming them cheats; and despite his best efforts, the explosive conclusion comes as a bit of a letdown.
In the end, however, that probably won’t bother most viewers overmuch. They’ll be content to be flummoxed by the twists and turns, and by the game efforts of the cast, even though they’re playing one-note caricatures. Craig certainly seems to relish adopting a broad accent as the shamus whose air of reticence abruptly vanishes when he springs forward with a brilliant conclusion, and whose sense of dandified style is almost as complete as Poirot’s. It’s also good to see Norton in a major role again; his film appearances have been too rare of late. He makes Bron a complete douchebag, the very essence of the sort of disgustingly acquisitive self-styled genius so much in the news nowadays. The picture is also visually eye-catching, with an elegant production design by Rick Heinrichs and colorful costumes by Jenny Eagen, all caught in sumptuous images by cinematographer Steve Yedlin. Bob Ducsay’s editing helps to keep the plot’s swerves fair even though at well over two hours the film is too long, and Nathan Johnson’s score doesn’t push the wink-wink level beyond endurance.
Yet despite its many felicities, this sequel is less of a Thanksgiving treat than its predecessor was three years ago. In part that’s the result of the familiarity of the formula, but also of an overblown approach that increases the feeling of artificiality and smugness. As a puzzle “Onion” passes muster, but while one can admire the ingeniousness of the clockwork mechanism Johnson sets running here, as it counts down it proves to be less fun than it should.