By Kevin Slane
Following the runaway success of “Knives Out,” the 2019 Massachusetts-filmed whodunnit, director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) inked a lucrative two-sequel deal with Netflix. While Johnson could’ve gotten away with delivering a straightforward, rehashed “Knives Out 2” for the streaming giant, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” changes the game in unexpected and delightful ways.
The characters and locale of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” shift from the 2019 original, with Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig of James Bond fame) the only holdover. Instead of an old-money New England family, the mystery centers around Elon Musk-esque tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton, “Fight Club”), who invites a group of his longtime friends to his private Greek island in the midst of the pandemic.
Yes, “Glass Onion” takes place in early 2020, and COVID references are very much on the menu. Left with no mysteries to solve, Blanc has quarantine blues, spending his days soaking in a bathtub and Zooming with his friends. That all changes when Blanc is invited to the billionaire’s island to participate in solving a staged murder mystery experience alongside Bron’s closest pals.
The billionaire’s friends are a cadre of sycophants striving to stay in Bron’s good graces. There’s Joe Rogan-esque Twitch streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), reluctant inventor Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr., “Hamilton”), bought-and-paid-for politician Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn, “Wandavision”), and over-the-hill cover model turned fashion entrepreneur turned self-inflicted cancel culture victim Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, “Almost Famous”).
There are a handful of less-loathsome figures on the island as well, including Birdie’s beleaguered assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick, “The Gray Man”) and Andi Brand (Janelle Monae, “Hidden Figures”), a former business partner of Bron’s who was frozen out, “Social Network”-style, and is regarded with suspicion and distance by the others.
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is more of a madcap film than “Knives Out,” piling on the absurdity from the opening credits. And just like the 2019 version, the cast is its biggest strength. As Birdie, Hudson gets the most consistent laughs throughout the film, from insisting that everyone at her raucous 200-person apartment party is “in her pod” to her pathological desire to post career-ending tweets. Norton is a winner as well, playing the kind of billionaire who cultivates a worldly image that could nevertheless be deflated by a particularly clever child, a la “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Finally, I’ve yet to see a movie in which Monae is anything less than excellent, and much like Ana de Armas in 2019’s “Knives Out,” she nearly steals the film.
You can tell that Johnson is having a lot of fun with his blank check from Netflix as well, and the film occasionally functions — either explicitly or metaphorically — as a commentary on the economies of mega-scale created by VC-funded capitalism. Speaking of Netflix, the company has unfortunately decided to only release “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” in theaters for one week, starting Wednesday, Nov. 23. It’s an understandable choice, given that streaming is the company’s business. But having looked at many Boston-area showtimes that are already filling up days before the film’s release, it seems likely that Netflix is leaving money on the table.
Having seen the movie at a sold-out preview screening on Halloween, I highly recommend making time with your loved ones this Thanksgiving weekend to peel back the layers of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” in theaters.
Rating: 3 ½ stars (out of 4).
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is in theaters from Nov. 23-29, before streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 23.
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