A Few Onions Short of French Soup: Rian Johnson Cooks up a New Batch of Characters for a Murder Mystery Dinner
Got Covid? The flu? RSV? Pharmacy all out of cough syrup? If you need to park on the couch with a funny movie, look no further than Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery! This sequel to writer and director Rian Johnson’s 2019 smash hit Knives Out is now streaming on Netflix after completing its one-week theatrical run in November 2022. Glass Onion continues the sleuthing adventures of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the keen-eyed and good-humored detective with a lovable southern drawl. In the first film, Blanc interviews members of the privileged Thrombey family in the aftermath of the suspicious death of its patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). They’re bickering, they’re believable, they’re hysterical. The setting is what you’d expect of a classic murder mystery—a dark, ornate Gothic mansion in New England; fog, mud, trench coats. Yet this is no Clue board. Knives Out is a comedy-mystery, but then Johnson does something new: he cleverly transforms his film into a thriller halfway through, all the while providing comedic satire and a few characters we come to care about. It’s all very entertaining.
Johnson tries to do it again in Glass Onion, taking us somewhere very different from the first film. This time, we find ourselves in the early months of the pandemic (though the pandemic’s only relevance in the story is to reveal character, and to give the colorful cast of characters an invitation they will find hard to refuse). This invitation comes via an elaborate puzzle box; our characters have to videoconference to figure it out, which is our first clue about them. When the final puzzle is solved, the box opens up like a bloomin’ onion to reveal the ultimate pandemic fantasy invitation from their friend and billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton): a trip to his sun-drenched private Greek island for a murder mystery party. Benoit Blanc surprises everyone—no one knows who has invited him. Is the party just a ruse? Who will the murder victim be? Will they all die à la Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None? What about that guy Derol (Noah Segan) who’s just hanging around the island? It’s a fun setup.
The star-studded cast is fun to watch, too, though the drawing of the caricatures is considerably more heavy-handed than in the original film. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) is a tattooed men’s rights activist who goes everywhere with his guns; Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is a party-girl fashion icon in a ruffled bikini who doesn’t know what sweatshops are; and Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a corrupt politician who has lied under oath, broken Covid lockdown, and is avoiding doing the right thing in an attempt to cling to power. Then there’s Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), a sort of wannabe Playboy bunny in Daisy Dukes who sleeps around to further her boyfriend’s career and has named herself after a type of distilled liquor. Some of the characters feel underdeveloped, namely Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr), the substitute teacher-turned author/scientist who’s on the verge of becoming interesting but perhaps doesn’t have enough dialogue. Then there’s the forgettable Peg (Jessica Henwick), whose purpose may only be to showcase character-revealing dialogue with Birdie, which we barely need because we’ve got Birdie figured out pretty much at first glance.
Like the first film, Glass Onion is a satire. Yet the members of the Thrombey family in Knives Out were drawn with enough subtlety to make them feel more like real people. The satirical jab at Gwyneth Paltrow-esque types via Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) and her skincare company Flam—deliciously close to Phlegm—hits us in just a few subtle lines of dialogue. If she were the same character in Glass Onion, she’d need to have a scene where she accidentally murders someone with bee sting acupuncture or blowfish homeopathy, and another one where we learn she’s embroiled in a scandal over her 2020 Easter jade-egg roll. The Knives Out characters are also smart. Benoit Blanc isn’t the only one of them who can play a game of cat and mouse, which is part of what makes the first film a good story.
Like Joni and her failing skincare company, our Glass Onion characters were mid-career failures when Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) found them in a bar. We’re supposed to believe that she “saw their potential”. Enter Miles, in a ponytail and leather vest, with dubious qualifications himself, and wham bam, Miles mysteriously propels all of them to success and notoriety in their respective fields, subsequently winning their love and loyalty. He thereafter dubs them “The Disruptors”. Then, Andi, apparently the brains of the group, jots down some stuff on a cocktail napkin and wham bam, a multi-billion dollar company is born. What’s on that cocktail napkin you ask, a cocktail napkin that will later be at the center of a court battle? A jumble of meaningless tech-related words. “Crypto scalability! Crypto management! Dark web efficacy (whatever that means), free app, machine “learn”, assessability—unclear if that’s a misspelling of accessibility—and some other nonsense. It’s as if one wrote down “Prime number, theorem, quadratic equations, Pythagoras,” and called it revolutionary math. The relationships also feel forced. Despite the entertaining performances, this group of people are about as believable as a group of close friends as a Trump rally full of N95s. (And true to form, when they arrive on the island, Lionel the school teacher-turned scientist and Peg both sport medical-grade masks, Benoit Blanc wears a cloth mask that coordinates with his outfit, Claire Debella has a cotton mask that’s falling off of her face, Birdie wears something made out of hat lace, and Duke and Whiskey wear nothing at all).
Not all of the characters are quite so flat, and even when they are, it’s usually funny. Janelle Monáe’s performance as Watson to Daniel Craig’s Sherlock is enjoyable from the get-go. When she receives the puzzle box, she smashes it to bits with a hammer. Edward Norton is also highly entertaining. We’re used to seeing him in psychologically complicated roles like in Primal Fear and Fight Club. Here, he gets to show off his glass mansion, glass boat dock, and glass Porsche pedestal, while using words like “inbreathiate” and “predefinite”. Oh, and he also has rented the Mona Lisa, displayed behind glass but with a sneaky Miles-installed override switch so he can view the painting without the glass, just because. It must have been a fun role to play. There are also funny cameos, like Serena Williams (playing herself) on stand-by on a live feed in the empty island gym, just waiting for someone to come work out. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is the most entertaining of all. His accent is delightful, his humble demeanor is endearing. And his sartorial choices? The movie is worth a viewing just to see the variety of outfits he’s brought to Greece. It’s a real change from his wool suits-and-suspenders-getup in Knives Out. Maybe this film is just more over the top than the last one, or maybe it’s a character statement, showing how Blanc cleverly crafts his outfits to better fit in with the particular brand of wealthy schmuck he’s investigating. Who cares, though. It’s a real credit to the costume designers that Birdie, fashion icon, looks ridiculous in almost every scene, while Blanc—in his cravats, neck scarves, striped shirt-and-shorts “swimming costume”, and high-waisted billowing linen pants that look like they could have been stolen from Joaquin Phoenix’s closet on the set of the movie Her—manages to look awfully stylish.
Ultimately, Glass Onion is funny, if not revolutionary, social commentary: high IQ is not required to make bank; money buys power; power corrupts; the corrupt cling to power. Right? Or, wait, no, it’s: those who are corrupt grab for money, power, get both? And: the elites are not to be trusted, not just because they are morally bankrupt, but because they are idiots. Except that all the money was made because one person in the group had brains. Except… that napkin? Okay, maybe the cocktail napkin was just the props department trying to have as much fun as the costume designers, but still… And then, right at the end… [SPOILER, sort of, since the button on the Mona Lisa fire-proof glass functions as a Chekhov’s gun] …one of the characters torches the painting, pinning the destruction on our villain, who was definitely going down regardless—a move so perplexing and hypocritical as to suggest that they, too, have been corrupted by the same brain-gobbling amoeba that’s infected everyone on the island. Only Benoit Blanc manages to escape ridicule. Unless we were supposed to laugh at him in that swimming costume? No way. Daniel Craig would look sophisticated in clown shoes. The comedian Eddie Izzard once said, “The American dream is to be born in the gutter, to rise up, get all the money in the world, stick it in your ears and go pffffttt!” Ah, America. Glass Onion is just one of many recent eat-the-rich films. Seeing rich people as such awful caricatures rather than flawed humans we could potentially identify with is a safe view when we know we’ll never be billionaires ourselves. But yeah, it’s fun to laugh at rich people being morons. So will Glass Onion’s brand of over-the-top satire actually inspire any kind of social change, or are we just entertaining ourselves? Can we build a better American dream? Will we put down the Jared Leto Hard Kombucha and go tell Serena we’re ready for that workout? Who knows. After all, there’s one thing that can’t be obtained with funds, friends, or force of will. A brain.