Saturday, December 3, 2022

Transparent allegory


Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Spoilers: moderate

If 2019's Knives Out worked better for you than it did for me, and it probably did, I suppose it's possible that its sequel, Glass Onion, might also work better for you, because it is, fundamentally, the exact same damn movie, reskinned: its "full" title is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which is a name not reflected in its onscreen, tequila-bottle font, "real" title cardit reads, simply, Glass Onionand maybe that's even a tell, in a protesting-too-much kind of way.  I'll go ahead and say I like it slightly less than its predecessor, which turns out to be one of this mystery's meaner surprises, because it doesn't start out declaring that it will be a retread of Knives Outthat is, retreading its plot in addition to its themes (for of course retreading Knives Out's vague anti-capitalist themes was always somewhat baked-in here, as "anti-capitalist themes" are a brand to manage just like everything else)let alone does it declare it'll be a retread to diminished returns.  For all of Knives Out's very-obvious yet widely-ignored weaknesses, Glass Onion genuinely does expend a significant amount of effort correcting them, and for the whole of a long and strong first act, I was extremely grateful for this.

The most basic of Knives Out's problems does get fixed: Glass Onion is a story for which one may reasonably assert that this mystery franchise's super-detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), is actually the protagonist, or at least a deuteragonist, which is an agreeable shift from Knives Out which made the unique and flummoxing decision to introduce us to this super-detective by affixing him to a thriller plot where he is very clearly the third (arguably fourth) most important character, where his skills don't really matter for the vast majority of the runtime, and which (with minor changes) could have been executed perfectly cleanly without his presence at all.  It does not really fix that he's not the world's most interesting super-detective, but it's at least conceivable that the most interesting thing about him is no longer Craig's vicious rendition of my American dialect, which Craig has managed over the course of several roles over the past few years to craft into something that at last finally sounds slightly less like a 50-something British man doing a hate-fueled impression of Foghorn Leghorn.  So that's nice.  (You know what?  At least I say "the hospital.")

Benoit Blanc, then, starts out his story finding himself on a very exclusive list.  It's a list which we run through with thoroughness but also a salutary, splitscreened efficiency, as our various principals each receive delivery of a curious puzzle box, and five of themLionel Touissant, a highly-placed Silicon Valley engineer (Leslie Odom Jr.), Claire Debella, the governor of Connecticut presently running for Senate (Kathryn Hahn), Birdie Jay, an ex-model turned fashion designer (Kate Hudson), Duke Cody, a Twitch-based men's rights activist (Dave Bautista), and Whiskey, Cody's girlfriend (Madelyn Cline)all join forces over Zoom to solve said puzzle.  At the end they find an invitation to spend a weekend with the central hub of their little wheel, billionaire wunderkind techbro Miles Bron (Edward Norton).  (Peg (Jessica Henwick) is also on hand as Jay's assistant, but she doesn't matter.)  Meanwhile, yet another box arrives at the door of Andi Brand (Janelle MonĂ¡e), which is very curious because she isn't a part of this circle anymore, having recently been on the losing end of a lawsuit, forced out of the company she helped found by Bron's vile machinations; and instead of solving the puzzle conventionally, she more cleverly just bashes it in with a hammer.  Blanc has received his own similar boxsolving it more conventionally but, by his account, almost as easily as Brand didbut even more curiously, he wasn't supposed to, and when he arrives Bron takes him aside to ask him what he's even doing here, because he didn't invite him.  Nevertheless, he's happy enough to have Blanc's company, and it's explicable enough (for now), as one of his pals cheating, for Bron has planned the weekend as a riveting murder mystery partyhe'll play the "corpse"though Blanc has solved this before he's even announced the details of his scenario.  Before we wonder if the whole weekend's down the drain, however, somebody dies for real.  And then somebody else.  Good thing there's a super-detective already on hand.

This long first act is, in fact, kind of good, and it's good in ways Knives Out wasn't, and didn't really want to beincluding just "being a Goddamn murder mystery."  (I forget when exactly it was revealed there was no initial homicide in Knives Out, but I recall it being pretty early.)  Writer-director Rian Johnsona filmmaker I'd like to like, but whose best film remains a seventeen year old one-note joke about teens doing hard-boiled noir dialogue across the span of a feature that, like literally every one of his movies, runs about twenty minutes too longhas still not evolved his understanding of satire beyond Knives Out's wearisome concept of "a cast of caricatured assholes representing sociological foibles who get on your nerves, which is supposed to be funny."  But he has at least in this instance managed to create more than one caricature with more than one foible, rather than an entire cast of just iterations of one asshole, whose satirical value was being more secretly racist or less secretly racist, as determined by Johnson's adjustment of the slider on his screenplay generator's character creation page.  Despite (sometimes because of!) their flatness, these are fiercely individuated characters.  This isn't an unalloyed goodit doesn't really make sense how these people could be such close associates, and when their web of relationships actually does receive an explanation beyond the acceptable dodge, "they are all douchebag elites," it makes less sensebut it is far less tedious in the watching, and that's what really matters.  Egads: someagainst Johnson's will, I'm sureeven accidentally become human beings.

Norton is the big winnerthis film was never going to reward him for it, so I'm afraid it's up to usbut he's giving, like, an actual performance, as if he were playing an actual person, with likes and dislikes, enthusiasms and guilts, things to be proud of and things to regret, all the good stuff that makes a person, rather than solely what the script tells him to be, which is a quickly-sketched editorial cartoon about how Elon Musk, and all billionaires to the extent they resemble Elon Musk, are a bunch of wacky, wacky morons.  (Glass Onion, accordingly, winds up both precisely of and slightly behind its time: it seems to think that "having dumbfuck ideas" and "doing corporate betrayals" are what make Musk bad, rather than the very long list of things that make him far worse than that, a list that starts with "being, with very little exaggeration, a Nazi."  I mean, it's definitely not "he proposed an alternative to hydrocarbons," this being the little stock maguffin Johnson trots out here, for the pyrotechnics of it more than the politics, I hope, though it's still needlingly aggravating, in the same way that having a Northeastern Democratic politician in this group is; and if you're going to go at Tesla, go at Tesla, and go at "self-driving cars that self-drive right over pedestrians," which we could debate, but I think it would've been a more enjoyable climax in any case, and at least might've obviated the absolutely disgusting use this screenplay finds for Bron's rental of a particular item  from the Louvre.  Besides, as far as "having dumbfuck ideas" goes, that's almost what makes Musk good! Since, thanks to his dumbfuck ideas, Twitter shall shortly die.  Which is why it's so odd that Musky Bron does not own a phone.)

But while some get more opportunity than othersNorton, as mentioned, but also Hudson and Bautistaalmost all of them get at least one moment where they break through the strict bounds of the satirical exercise.  The film also looks extravagantly nice: Steve Yedlin may be prosecuting the single best photography of 2022 by complete fucking default, just by color grading "sunny daylight exterior" to "sunny daylight exterior," as literally thousands of color cinematographers once did without even thinking about it in American cinema, and Johnson is likewise having a good time living in the sunny daylight, worshipping the embodied, nearly-nude presences of Hudson and Cline and sometimes (sort of) Bautista, enjoying the vacation creations costume designer Jenny Eagen comes up with (the most interesting thing about Blanc is, collectively, his neckerchiefs), exploring the bric-a-brac production designer Rick Heinrichs has filled Bron's stupid glass mansion with, and, all along, turning even the most banal conversations here into the stuff of a tight, tense thriller.

I have, however (and with the exception of the photography, which is swell throughout), touched on virtually nothing except the first act, and with the second act turn it transforms this franchise completely into formulait is shocking, just shocking, how completely Johnson is able to turn this sequel's different scenario into almost exactly the same scenario as the first film (it's perhaps even more shocking he could stumble across a Southern accent worse than Craig's, but he does that, too).  I kept waiting for another shoe to drop because, surely, you didn't... well, of course you did.  That's the point of it.  The point of it that makes it predictable, in all ways, from jump street.  Maybe filmmakers with politics foremost on their minds should not do murder mysteries, but, really, that's only true if it's "foremost."  I'll just put it out there that this doesn't make it intellectual: Murder On the Orient Express has more and better meditations to make about crime, punishment, and society, a more and better mystery, a more and better detective, and a more and better cartoon accent, and 100% more mustaches versus Glass Onion's 0% mustache score.  Ken Branagh does more and better all over in that movie, and with half an hour yet to spareGlass Onion runs an eyebrow-raising 139 minuteswhereas even Death on the Nile, which was too long but has much nicer sets that aren't all gaudy jokes, still gets out quicker.  And, gracious, given that Orient Express presents Johnny Depp with a rather more hostile jury than he received in real life, the 2017 movie is far more satisfying, even on this exact level of one-to-one social commentary.  Well, that's an accident, sure.  But the rest is because Ken Branagh is a true artist and Rian Johnson makes very long, moralizing sitcoms.

I digress because I do not wish to discuss specific plot points.  Glass Onion middles reasonably wellJohnson is still a solid technical filmmaker (the build-up to the first act finale is a modestly excellent use of editing rhythms, in fact), so even as the second act winds up recapitulating the first act for a really long time, it's engaging enough from this new point of viewbut no technical skill was likely to survive hitting that third act, which returns us to the present tense with a lurchingly bad "just kidding" reversal, and then gets swallowed alive by the satire that was Johnson's only real goal all along.  And I wish this were better, because it is, for once, actually good satire: it doesn't quite work even on the more relaxed terms of story logic it suggests we meet it at, not really, but it does slap us directly across the face like the dead fish it is.  Such a thing requires nerve, however, and this movie absolutely loses that: what should be a defiantly straightforward get-the-fuck-out-of-the-theater-and-think-about-what-I-told-you moment is squandered by stretching it out across a desolate valley of explanation and exposition and backstory that could not matter to anybody, and only serves to remind you just how artificial, hectoring, and ultimately just plain gutless this "satire" actually is.

Oh, and it's set during covid times and while I can't come up with anything cogent about why I'd rather it weren't, I would, indeed, rather it weren't.

Score: 5/10

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