Friday 23 December 2022

On demand: "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery"

2019's enjoyable
Knives Out was one of the last major pre-pandemic hits, and one of the few American films of its moment to appeal beyond kids and fanboys: an old-school country house whodunnit in which Daniel Craig's drawling detective Benoit Blanc interrogated a variably fresh-faced set of unusual suspects. As the movie hit big and the world went into lockdown, Netflix pounced for the rights, inviting writer-director Rian Johnson to turn a one-off into a franchise, and so we now have Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a vastly more expensive (and expansive) sequel that factors the pandemic into its thinking. Its initially masked-up pool of suspects are "disruptors" - including a white influencer (Kate Hudson) cancelled for dressing up as Beyoncé on Halloween, and a men's rights activist (Dave Bautista) who still lives at home with his mom - invited to escape the virus on the sunkissed Greek isle tech bro Miles Bron (Edward Norton) calls his holiday home. Bron's modernist retreat - the Glass Onion of the title - has been stuffed with pricey, one-of-a-kind tchotchkes (including the actual Mona Lisa, loaned out, we're told, by the Louvre during lockdown), but these provide precious little defence as the party's planned murder-mystery weekend unravels, and the guests are picked off one by one. Among the casualties: any goodwill you might have brought to Johnson's revivalist project after Knives Out. Glass Onion runs a full two hours and 20 minutes, because Netflix refuse to employ producers who might lean on their sacred content-providers, or gently suggest that a murder-mystery where it takes an hour for the first body to hit the floor is pushing it somewhat. And while the longer, more indulgent sequel - the follow-up that serves double duty as a lap of honour - is a not uncommon theatrical tactic, Glass Onion barely logged a full week in cinemas earlier this month, because the Netflix higher-ups insist their model isn't theatrical but streaming. The dysfunction now factored into American filmmaking is such that it messes up even the good stuff.

There is some good stuff in Glass Onion: Johnson's renewed faith in ensemble playing, which nudges the movie past the implausibility of these diverse characters knowing one another as they apparently do, and the filmmaker's ludic streak, his delight in games, puzzles, gag cameos. (There's a nice series of character beats early on, hinging on how the principals open Bron's hard-carved wooden invitation.) But the upscaling helps nothing and nobody much. As in TV's The White Lotus - another pandemic artefact suffering from diminishing returns in 2022 - the ever-bright blue skies immediately slash the dramatic stakes by a further 50%: we're watching actors enjoying a nice holiday, and a prime opportunity to model bespoke swimwear. Replacing the fraught but relatable family dynamics of the first movie with the vapid, perilously irritating elite of social media feels like a grave error. And the film's too damn big for its own narrative good. These nincompoop characters get lost or overlooked on sets this vast; Johnson has to fill some of the space with torturous second-act backstory that a tighter script would finesse into the present-day activity. (Inevitably, it involves the kind of corporate skulduggery creatives now feel obliged to write in so as to keep the execs interested.) In the best murder-mysteries - and even in Knives Out, which was a pretty good murder-mystery - the pleasure lies in seeing all the pieces clicking together. Maybe it's the new digital context, but a lot of Glass Onion just feels like Johnson and company were spinning wheels, as we were all spinning wheels towards the end of lockdown. If you come away remembering anything of it - and Glass Onion does seem emblematic of the kind of so-so content you plod through in chunks, then forget almost instantly - it'll likely be the memory of people sitting around a pool twiddling their thumbs, and being paid handsomely to sit around a pool twiddling their thumbs. Around them, the franchise gets built-up and reaccessorised: for Chris Evans' much-memed white sweater in the first movie (simple, cosy, form-fitting), we now get Kate Hudson in a metallic rainbow dress (flashier, looser, colder). But it's all hollow construction this time out, a transaction devoid of heart, charm and soul. Money still talks, but - as far as our movies and TV are concerned - rarely can it have less of interest to say for and about itself.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is now streaming on Netflix.

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