Writer-director Rian Johnson returns to the scene of the triumph with “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” and finds the going a bit slower, the supporting cast less colorful, less venomous and less star-studded and the mystery quite a bit duller than the last time around.
The effortlessness of “Knives Out” is replaced by a sense of trying too hard and leaning into the goofiness, even as Johnson scores points about today’s nouveau riche tycoon “disruptors.”
Daniel Craig still adorably drawls his way through solving a crime that’s happened and fighting off crimes to come.
But Johnson goes much more conventionally Agatha Christie with this outing. Come sir, “twins” as a plot device? The ancient Greeks and almost as ancient Shakespeare would like a word. Another villain who owns “the real” Mona Lisa? Digs at “influencers” and celebrity “products” (Jeremy Renner hot sauce, Jared Leto “Hard Kombucha”)?
I mean, “cute and clever” still apply. But there’s quite a bit of desperate grasping here. The man peppers the picture with famous cameos, partly as an illustration of great wealth and fame as “another culture, another country,” but mostly to jazz up a cast that doesn’t include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas or Chris Evans.
So if you want to see the last screen appearances by Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim, along with Serena Williams, Ethan Hawke, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hugh Grant and Natasha Lyonne, jump right in.
The plot — old chums have received an ornate, electronic wooden puzzle box that they solve — together , over Zoom, as the pandemic is still raging — a puzzle that summons them to a Greek island owned by their richest and most famous friend, “Alpha” internet billionaire Miles Bron.
He’s played by Oscar winner Edward Norton, and when you consider that the gubernatorial candidate is played by Kathryn Hahn, the gun-crazed men’s movement influencer is Dave Bautista, his “arm candy” is “Outer Banks” bombshell Madelyn Cline, that Leslie Odom Jr. plays Bron’s friend-turned-corporate chemist and Kate Hudson (Remember her?) is a former cover girl turned gaffe-prone influencer, you may think you have this entire mystère de meurtre figured out.
The star-power imbalance and star-baggage — sinister roles Norton’s played before — point us towards a conclusion. But not so fast, writer-director Johnson hisses. Janelle Monáe (“Antebellum”) is here, a glaring, hostile, chillingly standoffish former business partner added to Bron’s guest-list.
Gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc (Craig) is also invited, summoned from his pandemic-long bath, mask in hand and plainly a mite overwhelmed, over-awed and overly solicitous at being included in this exclusive company about to be ensconced in extreme wealth and luxury.
“I lose it between cases,” he confesses, in gratitude.
But if the weekend is to be a “murder mystery” themed affair, with Bron staging his death and having his “disruptors assemble” to solve it, why’d he invite the world’s “pre-definite detective?”
Why indeed? The film’s most hilarious scene is Blanc, after carefully observing, overhearing all and questioning more than one guest or host with “What does that mean?” solves the planned “entertainment” in a flourish that would make Hercule Poirot’s mustache uncurl.
But a “real” death changes everything as intrigues, motives, dangers, rogue actors and backstories come into play to “thicken the plot.”
If “Knives Out” zipped by on the sharply-drawn “motivated” characters given delicious star-turns by the cast, we don’t come in expecting the “mystery” to carry the day, here.
Bron has built this island mansion — renegade artist Banksy designed the transparent (glass) dock — around a literal “Glass Onion,” a giant pleasure dome of glass decorated with art glass within, a puzzle from the outside whose layers must be “peeled away” before the truth emerges.
Only not really. It’s a great set and exists, we assume, for a great set piece which, when it comes, isn’t all that.
The intrigues aren’t terribly intriguing just as the puzzles are more perfunctory than puzzling. It’s also measurably longer and slower.
Johnson scores points deflating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “the rich are very different from you and me” truism, and skewering the “attention economy” the social media age has invented.
“It’s a dangerous thing to confuse speaking without thought with speaking the truth,” Benoit counsels one influencer — and Ye and Chapelle and Musk and a whole caucus of Congress.
And the movie surrounding that messaging is only sometimes less than amusing, with drunk scenes and name-dropping and genteel (and gay) Benoit losing his cool and his favorite expletive, “FIDDLEsticks,” for the cheaper laugh “S–t balls” as the s–t hits the fan.
But I guess you can only be truly bowled-over once by a brilliant filmmaker offering his updating of the classic Dame Agatha “gather the suspects in the drawing room” murder mystery. Just as I guess Johnson realized he’d have to try and generate more of a genuine mystery this time, seeing as how, player-for-player, he’s substituted less dazzling folk in every role than he managed with “Knives Out.”
Yes, it’s worth Netflixing. But a few lovely exteriors and a James Bond-sized super-rich guy’s lair that looks decorated by Swedish Nazis doesn’t really merit a buy-a-ticket big screen immersion. It’s mostly a movie composed in close-ups, and what is Netflix? Television? And what is television?
“A close-up medium.”
Rating: PG-13 for strong language, some violence, sexual material and drug content
Cast: Daniel Craig, Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson, Edward Norton, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Madelyn Cline, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick and Dave Bautista.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Rian Johnson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:20