Writer-director Rian Johnson’s 2019 sleeper smash “Knives Out” was such an out-of-nowhere delight, you can be forgiven for approaching the sequel with a certain trepidation. One of the increasingly rare non-franchise box office bonanzas, the film playfully re-jiggered elements of Agatha Christie’s locked-room mysteries with old-fashioned craftsmanship and a tart, contemporary edge. Opening to modest business before hanging around throughout the holidays and well into spring, “Knives Out” was the rare case of a movie becoming popular not because of a pre-sold marketing campaign, but because people actually liked it and told their friends. (The cross-generational cast had such a wide demographic appeal that it became a running joke at my other job that winter, trying to find anybody who had not gone to see “Knives Out” with their family.) The film had a spry lightness of step that’s difficult to replicate in this format. For proof, try sitting through Kenneth Branagh’s lumbering recent Christie adaptations, which come off like tacky dinosaurs in comparison.
“Glass Onion” — rather inelegantly subtitled “A Knives Out Mystery” — is funnier and more manic than the first film, sending Daniel Craig’s fey detective Benoit Blanc on an all-new adventure with an entirely different supporting cast of miserable miscreants. Johnson famously signed a $400 million dollar deal with Netflix for two “Knives Out” sequels and part of the joke of this film is how ridiculously profligate it is, at first overloading the audience with its ornate production design and a silly surplus of celebrity cameos. There’s an irony in a filmmaker seeking to satirize the immodesty of tech-bubble billionaires by setting as much of Netflix’s money on fire as humanly possible, but more on that in a moment.
The picture takes place during lockdown, when a depressed Benoit Blanc is surprised to find himself summoned to the private island of Edward Norton’s Miles Bron, a malevolently Musk-y tech bro who has gathered all his old college pals together to pass the time during the pandemic by playing a pretend murder mystery. Calling themselves “The Disruptors,” his friends include Dave Bautista’s men’s rights activist podcaster, Kathryn Hahn’s kooky congressional candidate, an inventor played by Lamar Odom Jr. and, most triumphantly, Kate Hudson as a canceled supermodel always obliviously saying the most offensive things imaginable. All are surprised and unsettled by the attendance of Janelle Monáe’s Andi Brand, who years ago was Bron’s business partner before he cheated her out of billions. (Or, according to these pop-culture savvy characters, he “Social Network-ed” her.)
It’s a classic rich-guy flex to invite the world’s greatest detective along to try and solve a fictional murder mystery of his own devising, but leave it to our super-sleuth to point out that Bron has inadvertently assembled an entire island full of people with excellent motives for wanting him dead, so it doesn’t take too long for the fake crimes to be replaced by real ones. As in “Knives Out,” Johnson takes great joy in subverting audience expectations, deflating suspicions while doubling back and re-setting the story every time you think you’ve got it figured out. But “Glass Onion” is hardly a reprise of the previous picture, switching things up from autumnal old money New England to the sleek, sun-drenched nouveau riche and striking a more overtly farcical tone. The obvious influence is Steven Sondheim and Anthony Perkins’ 1973 cult classic “The Last of Sheila,” to which visual references abound.
Lacking the warmth of the first film’s friendship between Ana de Armas and Christopher Plummer, the sequel doubles down instead on how despicable these people are, conjuring comic chaos while delivering well-deserved comeuppances. Norton makes an art out of being insufferable, cherry-picking traits from Elon to Zuckerberg to every other golden boy fraud we’re stuck reading fawning profiles of in the business section these days. (A wonderful inside joke during a flashback to the characters’ college years finds him trying to dress like Tom Cruise in “Magnolia.”) But my personal favorite is Hudson, swanning through scenes with such dim-bulb, blasé entitlement it’s as if the existence of other human beings has never occurred to her. Hudson hasn’t had a role this good in a while and it’s easy to forget what a dazzling comedienne she can be. (I saw the movie two weeks ago and still find myself cracking up about her look of disappointment upon discovering that the disobedient Alexa to which she has been issuing orders is actually just a lamp.)
Presiding over it all is Craig, even looser and sillier this time around. His honeysuckle drawl once again dragging the word “muuurrrdaah” out to multiple syllables, the preening Benoit Blanc here gets to model all sorts of flamboyant summer fashions, including a poolside jumper that practically earned an ovation at the IFFBoston screening I attended. This might be blasphemy, but I daresay that killing off Bond has lightened Craig considerably as a screen presence. (I saw him on Broadway this past summer in Sam Gold’s irreverent upending of “Macbeth” and am hard-pressed to recall the last time I’ve seen an actor having so much fun. Especially while playing Macbeth.) It’s similar to the energy Chris Evans brought to his first post-Marvel role in “Knives Out,” the liberation of no longer having to embody an icon.
Alas, the current plan is for “Glass Onion” to only play in multiplexes for a week over Thanksgiving as a sneak preview for the film’s Christmas premiere on Netflix. This is a shame because, just like its predecessor, this is a wonderful movie theater movie best experienced with a big crowd and exactly the kind of outing that the whole family could enjoy together during the holidays. Even more unfortunate is that, after years of a blanket policy against showing Netflix titles, AMC and the other conglomerates have struck a deal to play this one, icing out your local independent cinemas that screened stuff like “Roma,” “The Irishman” and “The Power of the Dog” when the big corporations all refused. So much for loyalty.
But I guess that’s the whole point of the story isn’t it? “The Disruptors” are revealed to be petty backstabbers who destroy everything they touch, and I still can’t tell if it’s a great joke or a smarmy one that Johnson made the movie for the biggest disruptor in our industry.
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” plays in theaters from Wednesday, Nov. 23 through Tuesday, Nov 29. It starts streaming on Netflix Friday, Dec. 23.