Glass Onion Understands the Absurdity of Extreme Wealth

Glass Onion begins with a puzzle—or rather, a series of puzzles. Each of the new characters in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel receives an intricate box packed with gears and motors that crank out riddles and codes. Once they’re deciphered, the package unveils an invitation to a weekend getaway on a remote island owned by a wealthy acquaintance. It’s a classic murder-mystery setup. But the true pleasure comes not from the cleverness of the puzzles, but from the recipients’ split-screened reactions, which efficiently reveal their personalities and gripes.

The best whodunits, after all, understand that the most compelling question isn’t actually who did it. The culprit matters little if the motive isn’t interesting—which is why the genre’s most enduring works impress with emotional, not just structural, complexity. The passengers of the Orient Express aren’t simply killers; they want to avenge a ruptured family. The dinner guests in Clue aren’t merely playing a game; they are desperate to cover up their past misdeeds. Johnson’s particularly twisty Knives Out follows that formula: The murderer acts out of not only greed, but also jealousy over his victim’s unexpected friendship with a sweet, quiet nurse.

Knives Out became a word-of-mouth hit when it arrived in theaters in 2019, and given the spate of eat-the-rich programming that’s come out in recent years, Johnson could have easily copied his own work for the sequel and found a captive audience. But Glass Onion (which dropped in select theaters yesterday and will run for a week before hitting Netflix next month) wisely avoids trying to top its predecessor’s sentimentality. Rather, the film pushes deeper into playfulness, while still maintaining a poignant streak. Like the beachside wardrobe the cast dons for its sun-kissed retreat, the movie is colorful and breezy. Glass Onion is mayhem-filled fun, best enjoyed with a crowd.

[Read: Rian Johnson turned the whodunit on its head]

For starters, no gory crime scene in a New England mansion casts a pall over the proceedings; this time, the uber-rich characters are embarking on a vacation in Greece, because it’s May 2020 and they could really use an escape from, you know, the whole pandemic thing. “I can breathe again,” the former model Birdie (played by Kate Hudson) sighs after removing her “mask”—a thin layer of mesh that fails to hide her nose and mouth. Their host, and the sender of the elaborate puzzle boxes, is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a hippie-dippie biotech CEO who spouts koans any chance he gets and calls the group his fellow “disruptors.” He’s gathered them for a murder-mystery party, but his island hideaway is built for maximum amusement of all kinds: Robot dogs help carry the luggage, a stash of Jared Leto’s kombucha keeps everyone buzzed, and the actual Mona Lisa is on display in the art gallery, on loan from the Louvre, because why not? He has outfitted the island to his every ridiculous (and ridiculously tasteless) whim, which only makes things funnier when his meticulously prepared operation goes awry.

Because of course it does—although saying more about the plot would ruin the many delights of watching the story unfold. Besides, the lineup is delectable enough: There’s Andi (Janelle Monáe), Miles’s bitter co-founder and ex; Claire (Kathryn Hahn), the tightly wound governor of Connecticut; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), Miles’s anxious head scientist; Duke (Dave Bautista), an insecure men’s-rights influencer, and his girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); and finally, the oblivious Birdie and her overburdened assistant, Peg (Jessica Henwick). These kooky characters are nouveau riche—save for Peg—and they all have a bone to pick with their host. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who doesn’t know Miles personally, believes he’s been invited only to assist with the tycoon’s mystery game. Yet he fits in better with this crowd than he did with the stuffy old-money types of Knives Out, who treated his Foghorn Leghorn accent as a punch line.

For a solid stretch of Glass Onion, Detective Blanc’s presence is the sole indication that this film is a whodunit. Johnson’s script smartly withholds the first instance of violence: The writer-director knows viewers expect the faux murder mystery to transform into a real one, so his restraint keeps their attention on getting to know the guests. Rather than relying on the characters’ suspicions of one another, the movie dials up the tension by toying with its audience’s assumptions about how long the party’s good-vibes-only mood will last.

The result is a contraption of a movie that lets everyone—on- and off-screen—participate in solving the mystery that unfolds. The air among these guests is so icy, something else must be behind both Miles’s plan and everyone’s reason for being there. Glass Onion liberally deploys flashbacks and scenes from different characters’ points of view, yet no minute feels wasted, even when the same moments get replayed. The top-notch cast revels in their respective roles as self-proclaimed geniuses. Norton plays Miles with an overflowing smarm that brings to mind any one of several “visionaries” making headlines lately. Monáe is deliciously enigmatic, at once snobbish and sensitive. Hudson appears to be having fun for the first time since her run of rom-coms in the late 2000s. And Craig, now that he’s fully past playing 007, seems even looser in his role this time around, delivering every silly Blanc-ism—“Fiddlesticks!”—with southern-fried aplomb.

In an interview with my colleague Davis Sims after the release of Knives Out, Johnson pointed out that whodunits are “uniquely suited to talking about class.” Glass Onion continues that trend, observing the absurd privileges of wealth and skewering the ignorance of the 1 percent. Moguls can all too easily be mistaken for masterminds, and entertainers for entrepreneurs who know what everyday people need. The opinions of the rich and famous seep casually into more arenas than they should, Glass Onion suggests. So, like the gift boxes that kick off the action, the story challenges the supposed intelligence of the moneyed few, over and over, one puzzle at a time.

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