After the success of his 2019 whodunit "Knives Out," writer/director Rian Johnson has now created another tricky mystery for his detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and arguably, this one is better than the last.
Set during the pandemic, the story begins with Senator Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), model turned sweatpants tycoon Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) all receiving a package from their billionaire friend, Miles Bron (Edward Norton). It's a puzzle box that involves playing games just to open it — Duke's mom (the fabulous Jackie Hoffman) gets a few laughs for her unwanted contribution — and it contains an invitation. Miles wants his friends, known as the "disruptors," to join him on a Greek Island for a murder mystery weekend.
The box is also received by Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), Miles' former business partner who recently lost a lawsuit because Claire, Birdie, Duke and Lionel all sided with Miles in court. Benoit Blanc gets a box as well, because who wouldn't want the world's most famous detective to be on hand for a murder mystery game where the players must identify the motive, means and opportunity of the killer? Besides, in one of the film's many witty sight gags, Blanc is depressed and won't leave his bathtub, because he is so bored. In fact, he is losing the internet murder mystery games he plays online with Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Natasha Lyonne and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Johnson is tipping his at hat to Sondheim's film, "The Last of Sheila," an influence on "Glass Onion," and acknowledging Lyonne's passion for constructing and solving crossword puzzles, when she recommends Benoit try his hand at some.) Other fun cameos include Yo-Yo Ma and Serena Williams, while Ricky Jay, Jeremy Renner and Jared Leto are all name-checked. And yes, all these fun facts are deliberate misdirection so as to emphasize Johnson's bona fides and not to spoil the real fun and games.
"Glass Onion" starts to unpeel its central mystery once everyone arrives on Bron's island. There are drinks by the pool and dinner before the mystery game of Bron's (fake) death begins. This gives Benoit motive, means and opportunity to get to learn more about the eclectic guests and their relationships and allegiances. Viewers, too, should be paying close attention as there are clues dropped as conversations are overheard and coupling ups are seen. And, as one person suggests, the truth is like a glass onion — it looks complex, but it is crystal clear.
It would be criminal to reveal who dies, but there is an "acute and violent" death that was done with intention. And just as this happens, the lights go out, allowing Johnson, ever the game player, to indulge in a stylish kind of hide and seek. And as bodies pile up — there is also a shooting — and the plot thickens, "Glass Onion" folds in on itself, flashing back to some events and retelling them from a different perspective. This gimmick allows for viewers to understand more about the suspects, er, characters, and track Benoit's efforts to deduce who killed whom.
Janelle Monáe as Andi and Kathryn Hahn as Claire in "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery" (John Wilson/NETFLIX)
Johnson certainly delights in creating puzzling distractions, but even if his film is as deep as a layer of onion skin, it is immensely engaging. "Glass Onion" gently mocks its characters, which what makes it so enjoyable. As the uber-rich Miles Bron, Edward Norton plays the charming know-it-all who certainly has a smugness about him. (His art collection, on display in many scenes, includes all kinds of fun pieces, with one famous work in particular at the center of it all.) Kate Hudson's Birdie Jay is not too bright, and an exchange she has about her sweatpants sweatshop is highly amusing. Dave Bautista also has a fun turn as the gun-toting Duke – he is "packing" even in his speedo. More mysterious are Leslie Odom Jr.'s clever scientist and Kathryn Hahn's liberal Senator. It is pretty clear that some, if not all, of these folks are up to no good, but Bron's speech about these disruptors who break the system is as shrewd.
But then there is Janelle Monáe's Andi, the outlier. She "shouldn't" be on the island because of the bad blood between her and Miles (and the others), and she maintains a frosty demeanor, that is suitably chilling. But around the film's midpoint, her backstory is explained, and it is, well, a game-changer.
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If viewers think too much about it, this carefully constructed puzzle falls apart like a Jenga tower, but Johnson deliberately, effortlessly carries viewers along so they don't think, even when Benoit gives a full speech about the need for critical thinking. It is misdirection, indeed, but one has to admire his ingenuity.
Moreover, viewers will appreciate Daniel Craig's delicious performance as Benoit Blanc. With his Southern drawl and dandy clothes, he is a pleasure to watch. His scenes with Janelle Monáe, who is fantastic as Andi, are why "Glass Onion" is so entertaining.
Observe and detect: this whodunit is highly satisfying.
"Glass Onion" streams Dec. 23 on Netflix.
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