Glass Onion (2022)
Written & Directed by Rian Johnson
I’ve been a Rian Johnson fan since his feature debut, Brick. I was 24 at the time and very into discovering interesting new directors with an emphasis on stylization. Brick was a stylized film noir set among high school students. It’s still a clever movie, especially now that I’ve seen the films Brick is referencing. I didn’t really care for The Brothers Bloom, but Looper had enough creative ideas to keep me entertained. The great discourse around The Last Jedi annoyed me. It’s a perfectly fine movie for a Star Wars picture and one of the few that surprised me in good ways. Knives Out was fun. So going into Glass Onion, I think I had moderate expectations. Rian Johnson isn’t going to be remembered as some pioneering force in cinema; he makes easily consumable pieces of candy that taste alright.
In May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was still keeping folks in isolation and masked up (it’s still going on, folks), Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is feeling bored. He needs a case that challenges him. Meanwhile, tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has sent out five wooden boxes to some of his old friends. They are familiar with Miles’ tricks and realize they are looking at puzzle boxes. After solving them, they find invitations inside to Miles’ island retreat in Greece, home to his elaborate mansion named the Glass Onion, for a murder mystery weekend to help pass the time during the lockdown. Somehow, Blanc receives a box and ends up going with the guests. Miles assumes Blanc is there as part of a prank on the part of a guest and plays along. But, of course, things do not go how Miles planned (or do they?), and soon enough, there is an actual dead body in the house. Through a twisty, turny series of conversations & flashbacks, the pieces of the puzzle come together, and the truth behind this gathering is eventually revealed.
I’m not going to hedge. I did not enjoy this movie. I think I hated this movie. It got to the point that I just wanted it to end. I didn’t care about any of these people, hated them all equally, and wanted to move on with my life. There is nothing about this story that feels clever rather than bluntly obvious. I did not like the writing, the performances, the plot, the direction, or the cinematography. Glass Onion feels like a Netflix movie, and if you know what that means, then you know it’s a bad thing. This thing has the air of budget cuts compared to Knives Out, not something the sequel of a successful movie should have. They even shoehorn in one of their young Netflix actresses into the film, something I’m guessing was a contractual stipulation for them ponying up the money.
Glass Onion feels like what you would get if you let Twitter write a movie. Every character is a heavy-handed collection of tropes. I get that the source material these movies are derived from wasn’t exactly known for nuanced character portrayals. The list of suspects in a Ten Little Indians style tale is often broad types of some kind. But when you lean into that, just making those types based on contemporary people and presenting it in such an obvious way, you are not being clever. That reeks of laziness to me. Wow, Miles Bron is just like Elon Musk, a wealthy moron who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Not once does the movie try to convince us that Miles really is brilliant. It’s clear he’s an idiot from his first scene, and he never breaks from that. This is the same thing with every character. They have zero nuance, so this felt like watching a badly out-of-date cartoon.
Broad characters can work, though, when you have good actors behind the roles. Kathryn Hahn is in this movie; she can be funny, right? In the right part, yes, she can. Unfortunately, this is a waste of her time beyond getting her name out there more. Like all the others, this is the Twitter-brained version of what this character would be. She’s a collection of phrases that make her feel like a Chatty Cathy doll. All of them feel like this. I am sure Dave Bautista and Janelle Monae are lovely people in real life. They seem like they would be pleasant to converse with on general topics. But they completely suck as actors. Both of them are so wooden and uncharismatic. For Bautista, it’s all about playing his role so annoyingly big yet delivering his lines with the sense he isn’t fully committed to this. Monae is a wonderful singer and a very beautiful person. Actor? No. She does a lot of smoldering poses here and manages to hit her marks without a mistake. But I was not charmed. I didn’t care if she lived or died or what her complicated backstory with Miles was. I wanted Blanc to solve the mystery, and for the end credits roll.
A good murder mystery should, at the very least, provide the audience with a clever twist when it’s time to reveal the killer. Glass Onion also fails in this regard. From early on, I had a good sense of who would be the bad guy and generally how things would play out. I always hope to be proven wrong in those instances, and most of the time, I am. There are a lot of good movies that anticipate what we know about a genre and subvert those expectations. Not Glass Onion. If you have ever watched a murder mystery, I don’t think you will have difficulty seeing where the plot will go. Instead, the film does this annoying thing where it reveals something obvious, and the filmmaker thought we had convinced ourselves it couldn’t be that easy. No, I figured when I saw this was on Netflix that it would be that stupid, and yes, they proved me correct.
There was one clever thing I noticed early on that I would applaud Johnson for. When the characters meet on the dock to board their ship headed to Miles’ island, we get some interesting character bits revealed through face masks. Some characters are wearing their masks correctly, one character keeps having her mask slip off their nose, and three characters show up without any. No one talks about the masks, but it is an intelligent visual cue to tell us about these people before much time has passed. The mask wearers are taking their health & others’ seriously, the non-mask wearers believe they are invincible, and the one in the middle well is in the middle, harder to pin down. One clever visual cue does not make a good movie, though. And I had to fight myself from falling asleep at least two times while watching this. I stayed wide awake during my viewings of Michelangelo Antonioni movies, which are slow as hell. The difference is those movies are substantive & interesting commentaries on the lives of the perpetually bored elite, while Glass Onion is an intelligent movie for stupid people.
This is all a hollow exercise in building a mystery machine and then pressing the on button. We’re supposed to be so impressed as the parts click into place and then squeal with delight when the reveal happens at the end. But I’m not interested in watching cleverly constructed machines when I sit down to watch a movie. I want to get caught up in the characters’ lives and see the human condition expressed in some way. You can make escapist movies that do all of that. I know some people will eat this shit up, and I’m happy you found a thing you like. However, I am not interested in American cinema if this is what they are pushing as “smart” these days. I worry about the cognitive decline in the United States, and I see it being expressed in both the media and the critical reactions to it. I think COVID fucked up people’s brains more than we realize.
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