Benoit Blanc, the eagle-eyed private detective portrayed by Daniel Craig, is no mere genteel Southern gentleman. According to his creator, writer-director Rian Johnson, Mr. Blanc is a gay Southern gentleman, a welcome detail that doesn’t significantly affect the story in his second outing, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (★★★☆☆).
But it’s a fun fact for fans of representation, and of the uncredited actor who pops up in a cameo as Blanc’s apparent live-in lover. It definitely provides context for Blanc’s delightfully dapper wardrobe, highlighted by Craig’s leggy appearance in a jaunty awning-striped seersucker short-set.
Bold style — both visually and in Johnson’s wholehearted embrace of the comedic whodunnit form — is largely what set the Oscar-nominated hit Knives Out apart from similar fare. Trending along with Kenneth Branagh’s recent Agatha Christie film adaptations, Knives Out helped revive a genre that had gone to dust since the ’70s: the all-star cast, prestige murder-mystery.
Johnson goosed the formula with injections of up-to-the-minute pop culture and politics, along with a cynicism that reflected the times but remained open to the hope that good might triumph in the end, as turned out to be the case in Knives Out.
That film’s mystery came embedded in a comedy of bitchy, backstabbing family feuding that was as crystal clear as it was entertaining. Establishing the Thrombey clan’s dysfunctional family dynamics in a single montage, Knives Out found its rhythm quickly before going forth to skewer their rich asses.
Glass Onion doesn’t gel as quickly around its oddball assortment of characters, including Benoit Blanc, all of them summoned by special invitation to a charming Greek island for a game of whodunnit. Blanc has to ask how Edward Norton’s tech billionaire, Kate Hudson’s former model, Dave Bautista’s gun-nut Youtuber, Leslie Odom, Jr.’s scientist, and Katherine Hahn’s sitting governor of Connecticut even know each other.
Based on their interactions, the sly asides, and pointed references, they know each other well, and the audience will be pondering along with Benoit how to connect the dots. But the underlying puzzle of how these people connect proves distracting, and, as the script stretches out the secrecy, we’re prevented from really joining in their game.
The actors might have felt similarly, as the ensemble feels like a collection of randomly assembled, disparate characters in search of a connection, until a galvanizing force steps through the door.
That would be not our eager private eye, but Janelle Monáe’s international woman of mystery, Andi Brand, the odd woman out in this crew, as evidenced by everyone’s sheer shock and/or displeasure to see her.
Monáe is an absolute pleasure in the role, playing Andi’s cool, defiant determination. She’s there on a mission that may or may not include revenge, but first, there’s the mystery to be solved of how she connects to this menagerie. Johnson peels this Onion open with deliberate care, one slick layer at a time.
Glass Onion maintains the satirical edge of Knives Out, this time aiming a laser gaze at so-called genius billionaires who think they can solve the world’s problems by selling something.
Johnson also plunges even deeper into the mystery genre gene pool, referencing predecessors like The Last of Sheila, Death on the Nile, and Neil Simon’s Murder By Death, to name a few. As with everything else in the film, there are layers to the references: The Last of Sheila co-screenwriter, the late legend Stephen Sondheim, cameos alongside another late legend and icon of the genre, Angela Lansbury.
Style still plays an important part, too, with Knives Out cinematographer Steve Yedlin returning with spry, observant camerawork, and production designer Rick Heinrichs ensconcing the party in outlandishly luxe surroundings. Knives Out costume designer Jenny Eagan’s spicy wardrobe works to distinguish their outsized personas, and adds to the festive atmosphere.
Even with dead bodies turning up left and right, this wild party won’t stop until Benoit Blanc brings down the curtain on a killer’s fatal crimes. The ultimate solution is perhaps not as engagingly intricate as one might desire in a film like this, but then, Johnson makes simplicity the point. Maybe he’s on to something.
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