Writer-director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig reteam for “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” the sequel to their 2019 film “Knives Out.” The new film trades New England for a Greek island, and a dysfunctional family for a group of friends who self-identify as “disruptors.” But essentially, it’s still a whodunit unfolding inside a mansion with a cast of eccentric wealthy folk.
A lot has happened since 2019, and “Glass Onion” acknowledges the Covid-19 pandemic in its opening sequences. But it hasn’t anticipated genre-shifting game-changers like “Bodies Bodies Bodies” and “Triangle of Sadness” now driving the conversation.
Billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) sends each of his friends a wooden box locked by layers of puzzles, which ultimately reveals an invitation to his Greek island for a getaway and a game to solve the mystery of his own murder. Among the invitees are Claire (Kathryn Hahn), governor of Connecticut; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), a scientist working with Miles; Birdie (Kate Hudson), a clueless former model who has reinvented herself as a leisurewear mogul; her personal assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); Duke (Dave Bautista), an influencer who is always packing a pistol; his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); and Andi (Janelle Monáe), Miles’ former business partner who everyone seems surprised to see. Joining them is famed detective Benoit Blanc (Craig), who has received the same puzzle box invitation, though not from Miles.
Each of the guests apparently has a motive to kill off Miles – but would there be a feature-length film if the game is all there is? Johnson has repeatedly pleaded with critics and the first audiences at the film’s Toronto International Film Festival world premiere to not give away any spoilers, but there are only so many logical conclusions one can draw from this premise. You may not be ready for all the plot twists, but those are nothing more than red herrings anyway. The ultimate solution is obvious, hiding in plain sight just as Benoit likes to say.
Johnson’s dialogue is quick-witted and chock-full of pop-culture references that do the heavy lifting in keeping a generally brisk pace. Birdie’s entire persona seems to be a dig at Kim Kardashian. But the film has been outdone by “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” which has moved the needle significantly, much like the first “Scream” did back in 1996. “Glass Onion” seems to be merely playing trivial pursuit, while “Bodies” has thoroughly updated the whodunit subgenre with today’s vernacular and cultural preoccupations. By contrast, “Glass Onion” comes off as somewhat uninspired, like a film aimed specifically at boomers.
Its depiction of the wealthy behaving badly also seems tame when compared with “Triangle of Sadness.” While “Triangle” is itself far from perfect, its characterizations of the leisure class and influencer culture are far more vivid. Johnson freely bounces around buzzwords like “disruptors” and “influencers” with dripping mockery, but he stops way short of satire. He never entices us to take an active interest in this new cast of characters, and there isn’t much suspense or high stakes to speak of even when things start to head south.
Like its predecessor, “Glass Onion” replays scenes with additional details added each time. It’s a narrative device that works well. There are some occasional sparkles of fresh ideas, such as words that trigger additional barriers guarding a prized painting, but these ultimately lead nowhere and provide no clues whatsoever. The film’s midsection is a bit of a slog also. The moment Nathan Johnson’s score inexplicably drops out, the air is noticeably dead.
Overall, the caliber of the cast isn’t on a par with that of the original “Knives Out” that featured screen legends like Christopher Plummer and Jamie Lee Curtis. Sadly, none of the Thrombey family or staff members are returning. Characters in “Glass Onion” are generally forgettable, and as a group, they decidedly lack chemistry. Though like Ana de Armas in the original, Monáe stands out here. Her part is by far the most complex and demanding in the whole screenplay, and she rises to the occasion.
“Knives Out” production designer David Crank created the iconic “knife donut.” “Glass Onion” production designer Rick Heinrichs has been similarly tasked to create a literal glass onion as the centerpiece feature of Miles’ mansion. Although much grander in scale, the glass onion is far less of a conversation piece than the knife donut. Some of the visual concepts, like the glass or ice-sculpture statues and dock greeting the arriving yacht with all the guests onboard, must have sounded a lot cooler on the pages of Johnson’s script than what the digital composers have ultimately delivered.
Overall, “Glass Onion” is a serviceable capitalization on the success of “Knives Out.” There’s nothing about it that strikes as particularly memorable or necessary, and the hodgepodge of plot points and casting choices seem emblematic of filmmaking by algorithm. Those without Netflix subscriptions aren’t necessarily missing out.