Remember the spring of 2020, when many of us were locked in our homes with only jigsaw puzzles and sourdough starters to keep our brains occupied? Writer-director Rian Johnson does, but he quickly contrasts the experience of the average person with the one percent in Glass Onion, set in the early days of the pandemic. The upper-class characters in this sequel receive elaborate, artisan-constructed wooden puzzle boxes from a mysterious billionaire, instead of cheapo jigsaw puzzles from Amazon whose packaging was scoured with Clorox wipes. Solving the puzzle’s various layers reveals an invite to a murder mystery party on a private island in Greece. In May 2020, many people couldn’t venture far from their homes, much less out of the country. The juxtaposition is stark and is the focus of this playful crime comedy that betters its predecessor in landing its satirical barbs, structuring its plot, and delivering a hell of a good time.
The boxes’ recipients are a disparate group, united only by their friendship with eccentric tech founder Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is a U.S. senate candidate, while Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) is probably cinema’s best-dressed scientist, apologies to Dr. Ian Malcolm. Meanwhile, Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) has turned a successful modeling career into a leisurewear empire, while her beleaguered assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) struggles to make a career. Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) has found fame as a Joe Rogan-esque Twitch personality, and his influencer girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) is along for the ride. Miles’ co-founder, Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), has been ousted from the group after losing a suit she filed against her former friend for stealing her ideas, but even she gets a box sent to her.
Despite their differences, they all show up in Greece to take a yacht to Miles’ island, but the real surprise is the presence of famed detective Benoir Blanc (Daniel Craig), who the rest of the group knows only by reputation. Like so many of us in 2020, Benoit Blanc felt both unmoored and stuck, lost without a mystery to solve. When he receives the puzzle box, he finds purpose, even if he can’t yet explain why he was invited to join in the fun. Once they’ve all disembarked on the island, the murder mystery game predictably turns into an actual murder mystery when one of the players is killed, but that’s where the film’s predictability ends.
Audiences likely wouldn’t have faulted Johnson for following the template he set with 2019’s Knives Out, which itself followed the model of Agatha Christie novels and was a monster hit for an original film. Yet while Christie’s fingerprints are still all over this twisty mystery, Glass Onion breaks the mold of the prior movie. It keeps the first film’s jaunty tone, satirical wit, and charming Southern hero, but it sets itself apart in its structure. Even if you’re no Benoit Blanc, pieces of the mystery are guessable, but the plot still delivers surprise and delight. And if that’s not enough, it features an endless stream of enjoyably employed cameos from diverse spheres.
I’d normally associate the nearly 140-minute runtime with Netflix’s attempts to goose their “hours watched” statistic with a franchise they paid $450 million for, but Glass Onion flies by. This is blithe, breezy fun that begs — and likely rewards — multiple viewings. (I would watch it again in a second.) Everyone in the cast is having a blast, but special credit is due to Kate Hudson in what has to be her best perfromance since Almost Famous. It’s a perfect bit of casting, which may nod to her work as co-founder of athleisure brand Fabletics, but Hudson is a non-stop joy. She also threatens to unseat Chris Evans and that sweater for the most covetable costume in the series with a metallic rainbow halter dress whose cost I do not want to know.
Money oozes from every bit of Glass Onion in both its mise-en-scène and its themes. It’s believably set on a private island owned by a billionaire, with all the accoutrement of the ultra-wealthy who have everything but don’t always have taste — or smarts. While Knives Out focused on the money-grubbing family of a millionaire, its sequel finds a different target among the rich. Various characters support its argument that just because someone is rich doesn’t mean they’re more intelligent than anyone else, a point that has rarely felt more relevant than right now (though I’m sure another product of generational wealth and literal dumb luck will come along soon and unseat the current dingdong driving a $44 billion company into the ground). It feels like a miracle of timing, adding to its sense of near-perfect construction.
Glass Onion is a marvel to watch, at once gleeful and diverting while not lacking thematic resonance. It elicits a sense of wonder as Johnson pulls off a feat of engineering, creating pure pleasure with a finale that delivers satisfaction on multiple levels. This is a jewel of a film, instilling hope that the third entry in the series will be just as much fun as its predecessors.
“Glass Onion” is in theaters Wednesday for a (they say) one week only theatrical run. It debuts on Netflix on December 23.