Modernity and the murder mystery clash in Glass Onion

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Modernity and the murder mystery clash in Glass Onion

If Dr. Fauci is on the lookout for a movie to see during his first weeks of retirement, he could do worse than Glass Onion, which played briefly in theaters in November and debuts on the streaming service Netflix on Dec. 23. The coronavirus pandemic has cheated millions of schoolchildren out of their educations, ruined many restaurant and retail experiences, and made hypochondriacs out of otherwise well-adjusted people. Now, with the release of the sequel to the 2019 murder mystery Knives Out, the pandemic has fouled up a promising film franchise.

Glass Onion, the first in a series of anticipated Knives Out sequels that Netflix is bankrolling to the tune of $469 million, is set in a world in which masking, social distancing, pods, and antiviral mists remain in popular usage. Haven’t seen someone cover their mouth with their shirt sleeve lately? Kathryn Hahn does that here. Forgotten how people used to ask permission before embracing someone with a hug? Kate Hudson does that here, too.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of Netflix’s investment in the frothy, diverting, and undeniably appealing Knives Out universe, writer-director Rian Johnson made the fatal error of weighing down Glass Onion — like its predecessor, centered on detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who speaks with a most companionable Southern drawl when explaining who did what and to whom with needless sociocultural significance. So instead of setting the film in some vaguely ill-defined present time like a normal movie, Johnson explicitly situates the story in May 2020 — the peak of lockdown mania among the moneyed classes that the filmmaker is spoofing.

In theory, the early-pandemic time frame helps justify the film’s premise: An idiosyncratic, filthy-rich young tycoon who seems to have been inspired by Elon Musk and possibly Peter Thiel, Miles Bron (Edward Norton) summons a group of longtime colleagues to his off-the-grid Greek island, on which sits his ostentatious glass onion-shaped domicile. Bron characterizes his invitees as “disrupters” — you know, status-quo-breakers, rebels, mavericks, and such — but they are little more than 21st-century jet-setters: woke politico Claire Debella (Hahn), washed-up it-girl Birdie Jay (Hudson), outside-the-box scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), and pro-masculinity social-media personality Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), plus his comely companion Whiskey (Madelyn Cline).

The coronavirus allusions come fast and furious in the early going of what becomes a 2 1/2-hour slog. Offering a respite from lockdown fatigue, Bron promises sun, drinks, and mental stimulation in the form of a fake murder mystery in which he is the purported victim. How very Last of Sheila of him! But first, waiting on a pier before being ferried to the mysterious island, the mostly masked company is subjected to a compulsory mouth spray inexplicably administered by Ethan Hawke. (For some reason, Hugh Grant and Serena Williams also turn up in completely nondescript cameos.)

What is the point of Johnson emphasizing, again and again, that the events of the film coincide with the pandemic? Perhaps he lives in a showbiz bubble in which extreme overreaction to the virus remains par for the course, but it seems likelier that he realized his mystery — in which Blanc finagles a seat at Bron’s table to help untangle the murder of the tycoon’s associate, Andi Brand (Janelle Monae) — was thin gruel without the addition of some extra elements. Alas, viewers a generation from now will puzzle at the film’s highly 2020-specific references. The best whodunits, from Miss Marple to Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot series, strive for timelessness.

But Johnson can’t help himself. At times, Glass Onion seems to exist for the pleasure of New Republic-reading retired professors. CNN’s Anderson Cooper is name-checked, his colleague Jake Tapper turns up in a cameo, and Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Natasha Lyonne are shown playing a game with Blanc on Zoom. The film’s essentially woke mindset is on display when the nature of Bron’s apparent betrayal of Andi is disclosed: They disagreed about the safety of solid hydrogen fuel as a power source, an idea on which Bron has bet big. What is this? A whodunit for retirees of the Department of Energy?

To be sure, it’s fun to watch the talented cast, often inebriated and sometimes literally in the dark, traipse around Bron’s compound, which is lavishly imagined and perfectly executed. Standouts include Monae, who aces a double role as the refined Andi and her affable avenging sister Helen; Hudson, who imbues her role with a va-va-voom vivaciousness that reminds us of her stellar comic turns in Almost Famous and Le Divorce while adding a note of previously untapped dissipated sadness to her persona; and, of course, Craig, who, in both Knives Out films, trades the relatively monosyllabic James Bond for the considerably more verbose Blanc. We smile at the way Craig says things such as “Hell’s bells” and “fiddlesticks,” but throughout the film, his pinched Southern delivery, unfortunately, called to mind a voice I could not quite place … until I remembered Kevin Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood on House of Cards.

For his part, Johnson directs with a sure hand — he knows where to put the camera and gracefully interweaves flashbacks into an already-complicated narrative — and the film is not without moments of wit. That a gong, said to be “scored” by Philip Glass, is heard at intervals on Bron’s island is a testament to his total remoteness from mainstream life. Yet Johnson can find no better resolution to the mystery than for Bron’s home — and the treasures within it, including the Mona Lisa (a loan from the Louvre) — to be simply destroyed. This long, interminable sequence, in which every member of Bron’s party smashes assorted glass sculptures before Helen causes the place to go up in flames, deserved the same fate as the fabled pie-fight sequence Stanley Kubrick shot for, and cut from, Dr. Strangelove: the cutting-room floor.

None of this is what Knives Out fans, or fans of traditional whodunits in general, are seeking. We want Professor Plum, the lead pipe, the billiard room, and all the rest, not reminders of the pandemic and discussions of alternative energy and intellectual property. Modernity and the murder mystery make uneasy bedfellows.

Peter Tonguette is a contributing writer to the Washington Examiner magazine.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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