Of all the victims of postmodernism, crime fiction has been twisted into itself most ruthlessly. Over the past few years, we’ve enjoyed watching Selena Gomez sniff around Manhattan in Only Murders in the Building, Saoirse Ronan digging out the tropes of Agatha Christie in See How They Run and — “I’m sure you’re wondering why I chose you all.” called here” – Daniel Craig camping the creole in Rian Johnson’s hit Knives Out.
Each offers puzzles worth solving. Everyone has their moments of raw emotion. But they are all essentially ironic deconstructions of conventions established during the golden age of crime fiction between the world wars. It’s hard to play it right now. Even these Branagh things are aware of their own absurdity.
No one will confuse Glass Onion with satire. Its allusions to the now inevitable messianic billionaires—I’m sure you can think of at least one—are little more than decoration on this expensive, purring metamystery machine
Firmly convinced that the ongoing megapastiche has a legacy, Netflix has shelled out a staggering $469 million for the rights to two Knives Out sequels. Learning from Christie’s habit of sending a bunch of ghastly suspects down the Nile or up the Orient Express, this second installment brings a chill so vulgar to a squillionaire’s island a few quiet miles from mainland Greece.
Kathryn Hahn is an argumentative candidate for the United States Senate. Kate Hudson is an intellectually dubious model turned fashion designer. Dave Bautista is a men’s rights activist who (Chekhov firearms alert!) carries an automatic pistol with him at all times. Leslie Odom jnr is a genius scientist.
The film’s slightly pointed satirical purpose becomes clearer when we are introduced to the owner of the luxuriously appointed landmass. Ed Norton’s Miles Bron is the kind of solipsistic tech bro who sincerely believes that wearing $1 billion in pants without wearing a tie makes you a “disruptor.” Johnson’s screenplay is fun, taking the old friends back to their badly coiffed youth and confirming that they don’t want to shake the capitalist system any more than the average Gulf banker does.
However, no one will mistake Glass Onion for satire. The nods to now-inevitable messianic billionaires—at least one you can think of, I’m sure—are little more than decoration on the expensive, purring Metamystery machine. Early cameos, which I won’t spoil, place Glass Onion firmly in the great tradition. (One of which points to a 1973 cinematic oddity that hasn’t yet garnered the cult following it deserves.)
Craig’s highly entertaining performance as Benoit Blanc briefly comments on the convention in which the detective – Peter Falk’s Columbo is the perfect example – plays the fool to lure suspects into incriminating errors. Benoit, who has apparently been confirmed gay here, will give them “some of that southern hokum to throw them off guard.”
There are constructs within constructs here. Even the title nudges the viewer. Glass Onion is the name of the bar where Bron and the suspects first made friends and a literal glass section of his mansion. But a blast of the Beatles song reminds us that John Lennon loaded it with creative misdirections like “Walrus was Paul.” Just like the script does.
Despite all that confident excitement, Glass Onion works damn well as a mystery romp. It feels a little slick but there are nice chicanes along the route to a satisfyingly loud finish. We’re not giving much away when we applaud the film for daring to let Benoit begin his “final” synopsis about halfway through a long feature film. Janelle Monáe is particularly strong in a role that’s more challenging than opening scenes promise. The production design and costumes are gorgeous, claiming Oscar nominations for Benoit’s line of nautical onesies alone.
In fact, Glass Onion is attractive enough to require a screening at the cinema before heading to Netflix. You can then see again whether the film has misled us as blatantly as a first sight would suggest. So let’s see now.
Glass Onion hits theaters today; it will be available to stream on Netflix from December 23rd
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