Three years later, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” arrives in similarly timely fashion, literally and thematically. In a nod toward the changed viewing habits brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, the sequel will have only a limited run in theaters before appearing on Netflix in December (the streaming giant bought the rights to the “Knives Out” franchise for a staggering $400 million). Whether they see it on a big screen or small, viewers will no doubt instantly recognize the new batch of characters invented by writer-director Rian Johnson, whose timing and satirical targets have once again proved utterly uncanny.
The human piñata skewered most hilariously here is Miles Bron, an elusive multimillionaire played by Edward Norton with just the right degree of humble-braggadocio. After elaborately inviting some old friends to his private island for a murder-mystery house party, Miles greets his minions playing “Blackbird” on the beach, casually mentioning that he’s playing “the guitar Paul wrote it on.” The name-dropping continues at a shamelessly furious pace, as both verbal checks and increasingly funny cameos, which accumulate into one big absurdist in-joke.
As for the official cast, they’re just as in-for-a-penny as the very game ensemble that gathered for the first “Knives Out.” In an extended opening sequence, we meet the main players: Claire, a soccer mom turned politician played with frazzled impatience by Kathryn Hahn; Duke (Dave Bautista), an anti-feminist Twitch celebrity preening from his mother’s basement; Birdie (Kate Hudson), a know-nothing influencer who’s been repeatedly canceled for saying boneheaded things in the name of “keeping it real”; Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), Duke’s girlfriend who’s intent on building her brand; and Andi (Janelle Monáe), Miles’s onetime partner who has decided to crash the party despite having been ripped off by the mogul several years ago.
Oh, and there’s the detective Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig’s Southern detective, along for the ride to solve for x with his distinctive Foghorn Leghorn bray and spoilery self-satisfaction.
The plot of “Glass Onion” isn’t the point in a movie that takes its cues from some 1970s and ’80s classics, primarily “The Last of Sheila” and “Evil Under the Sun.” Johnson is perfectly at home creating matryoshka-like games within games, giving his actors arcane explanatory dialogue to deliver with rapid-fire dexterity. But his real interests are bigger themes, having to do with contemporary manners and curdled cultural mores. He invites the audience along as he finds catharsis in point-and-laugh ridicule. An early sequence, in which a well-known actor, playing one of Miles’s apparatchiks, delivers a mysterious coronavirus vaccine to the guests before they depart for the island, pokes exaggerated but also outraged fun at an era when a global health emergency was experienced wildly differently depending on who you were and what you owned; in an aside, Benoit utters a line of genuine profundity when he notes that “it’s a dangerous thing to compare speaking without thought to telling the truth.”
In other words, Twitter is a trash fire — an observation that makes “Glass Onion” even more resonant in its parody of Musk-like tech bros and other black-turtlenecked empty suits, lionized as geniuses despite an almost comical lack of depth. Norton deadpans his way through Miles’s most laughable pretensions, whether he’s bragging about buying the Mona Lisa during the “pando” or trotting out meaningless jargon like “inbreatheate” and “infraction point” and “predefinite.” Meanwhile, Hudson turns up her ditz-o-meter to 11, twirling and screaming her way through a performance that should remind Hollywood of her singular scatterbrained talents.
Like “Knives Out,” and most examples of the genre, “Glass Onion” is mostly shots of people talking; the biggest trick of the movie is to make those static scenarios visually interesting, a feat Johnson accomplishes by way of a lush locale (played by Greece in the movie) and over-the-top production design every bit as lavish as Miles’s most self-indulgent habits, like his taste for Jared Leto’s line of artisanal hard kombucha.
By turns silly and scathing, “Glass Onion” once again demonstrates Johnson’s gift for critiquing culture in the name of good fun — or, perhaps more precisely, having fun by critiquing culture. With the “predefinite” detective of all time as his foil, he’s held up another overcomplicated but brilliantly simple funhouse mirror to our lives and times. “Glass Onion” doesn’t need to be an infraction point to be amusingly, entertainingly and unfortunately all too relevant.
PG-13. At area theaters; available Dec. 23 on Netflix. Contains strong language, some violence, sexual material and drug use. 139 minutes.