How can it be so bad: A Knives Out Mystery

Rian Johnson has complained that the powers of business demanded he attach the awkward subtitle “A Knives Out Mystery” to his latest effort, The Glass Onion. Unlike Knives Out, Glass Onion has nothing to do with knives, so Johnson’s objection might be the straightforward artistic desire not to attach a meaningless title to a movie. Yet the business of making movies is a business and it’s hard to believe that adding “A Knives Out Mystery” to the title wasn’t good business given the wild (and fully deserved) popularity of the original. But after viewing Glass Onion, Johnson’s reluctance to associate the two movies can be understood rather differently.

Sadly, Glass Onion is a terrible movie. Bad as a standalone product, but deeply awful in comparison to its remarkable predecessor. The intricate, origami unfolding of plot in Knives Out is mimicked here with much less success. The fascinating characters that people every role in Knives Out are not so much caricatured in Glass Onion as entirely removed. The fine casting of Knives Out and the stellar work of the supporting cast have devolved, in Glass Onion, into a hurly-burly of frenetic overacting. It’s difficult blame the cast, though, since to describe the characters and dialog in Glass Onion as two-dimensional would be to give them credit for a dimension they mostly lack.  Finally, what passed for social commentary in Knives Out was, if not subtle, at least not stupid. Glass Onion is all about social commentary and while it has no interest in subtlety it has a deep interest in stupidity.

Only Daniel Craig and his remarkable creation Benoit Blanc remain somewhat intact from Knives Out. And while poor Craig is deployed to much less effect in Glass Onion, he still manages to be effortlessly entertaining. You could watch Glass Onion entirely for Craig’s Blanc and not find the experience a complete waste of time. Just don’t spend any intellectual clock-cycles on the rest of the movie.

That stupidity is the theme of Glass Onion seems undeniable. The entire mystery hinges on the idea that it is by stupidity that the movie’s central villain has always succeeded and it is by stupidity that he manages to (briefly) puzzle the great detective. The idea that some very successful people might be stupid is neither novel nor inherently interesting. We have all been overexposed to that idea in everyday life. And while deeply stupid entrepreneurs are somewhat less likely than deeply stupid politicians, at least one current very public example nicely captures both in one bloated package. It’s clearly possible to be successful and very stupid, but is it interesting?

Johnson doesn’t bother to kit out his villain with anything resembling a distinct character. He often seems so determined to make sure you can’t possibly give his villain any credit for his success that he forgets to make him interesting. Trump’s stupidity may be banal, but his narcissism is epic. Glass Onion’s villain seems to be stumbling through life with a fairly ordinary mixture of greed, self-importance, and showmanship. He certainly doesn’t fascinate.

Worse, the theme of stupidity seems to have infected Johnson’s pen and story at every turn. His movie is a cheat from beginning to end. Perhaps we can forgive the laziness of another tech-bros billionaire villain. Is there a Hollywood movie in development where the villain isn’t an eccentric billionaire tech bro? How about something deeply unexpected like a Nazi or a Russian gangster? 

Still, it wouldn’t have been impossible to build a clever movie around a stupid villain and if Johnson wanted to do nothing more than echo Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (“When you’re rich, they think you really know”) it might have worked. But that would have involved bringing otherwise smart and normal people to the table to be fooled. Instead, Johnson brings a coterie of Influencers and hangers-on to the party. All of them are riding the same gravy train. Most are as stupid as their patron. And the ones that aren’t indulge him because they fear for their jobs not because they are taken in.

Of course, one might suspect that a tech billionaire must have some exceptional abilities to have created a massively successful company like Google or Facebook, right? Ahh, fortunately, our villain stole the idea for his company from a….drumroll please….woman of color.

Okay, a tech billionaire might have stolen the idea, but it takes something to build a huge public company, right? Not so, my friend. Because in Rian Johnson’s strange world, the woman of color builds the company and our villain steals it from her after it’s a huge public company by fabricating a napkin from before their founding that proves the idea for the company was his not his longtime partners’. Why this would make any difference is never explained. Stock, positions, and directorships in public companies like Meta are not determined by who had what idea on a napkin before they were incorporated. But in Glass Onion, the napkin becomes a critical piece of evidence on which something must hinge.

For sheer and breathtaking stupidity, it would be hard to imagine a dumber plot point. But Johnson isn’t done cheating yet. Because while our villain may not have had the idea for the company or have built it successfully, at least he is smart enough to play the role of a tech genius and craft a brilliant murder. Or not. Because in Johnson’s telling, the billionaire can’t manage even basic valley-speak. Benoit is tipped off to his stupidity by his persistent verbal blunders – misusing valley cliches that tech-bros are weaned on. Nor is his murder remotely clever. And what does seem clever is stolen from…Benoit Blanc.

You might object that it hardly seems likely that the brilliant young woman of color who had the idea for the business and built it up into a Meta like company wouldn’t have seen through this idiot dirt-bag a long, long time ago instead of partnering with him and his inane pals for more than a decade.

That would indeed be hard to explain. Luckily, Johnson kills her off before the action begins so that we never get to ask why she participated in this rolling circus of stupidity. In another breathtakingly stupid and cheating plot point, Johnson uses her twin sister (an identical twin – imagine that – how clever) to be the fulcrum of revenge. It’s convenient since that twin sister never liked any of these awful people to begin with. Nor is her twin sister freighted with what, to Hollywood’s eyes, must be the ultimate symbol of villainy, her own fortune. Instead she is…drumroll please…a third grade teacher.

No matter, she can don her sister’s dresses and show up at a days-long party with people who have worked closely with and built a business with her sister for the last decade without arousing any suspicion. Because of course she can.

Okay, but really isn’t this just another Hollywood story of venal greed leading to murder. At least it isn’t one of those really dumb movies where the super-villain might destroy the world.

Not so fast, my friend.

Glass Onion isn’t content with the merely stupid. It aspires to the colossally stupid. Our billionaire villain, not content with his mega billions, his IP theft, and his murder, has embarked on a new project to provide clean-energy to the world. Naturally, this clean-energy is somehow wildly dangerous and unstable and could result in…well…that’s not really clear. But without proper testing he’s planning to unleash it on the world and he’s even using a tiny cupful to power his private island. All without adequate regulatory approval.

A villain indeed.

After Blanc has revealed the murder plot but sadly opined that rich folk are above justice in our sad state, his plucky heroine saves the world by unleashing the awesome power of this uncontrollable energy source. This creates an explosion that manages to kill nobody and looks nearly as impressive as the time I threw a dry wreath in an active fireplace. Okay, I admit the wreath going up was pretty impressive. It gave a really satisfying woosh. She does manage to destroy the Mona Lisa (in a plot digression too stupid to even describe) – proving that this incredibly dangerous source of clean energy has the remarkable ability to immolate whole pieces of paper when used improperly!

And there you have it. A Knives Out mystery where you know who the villain is right from the get go. A Knives Out Mystery in which the motive hinges on an impossibly dumb misunderstanding about how business works. A Knives Out mystery in which not a single character evinces a recognizable human emotion or life. A Knives Out mystery in which the central villain is without charisma, intelligence or interest. A Knives Out mystery where the simple fact of murder is insufficient and which must involve, like a Roger Moore Bond film, a villain who will destroy the world.

Which brings us back, in a way, to the original question. Is this really a Knives Out mystery and, perhaps even more salient, how could someone who wrote something as smart as Knives Out have written something as stupid as Glass Onion? Is Glass Onion the product of burn-out? Of contempt? Of a cashed out artist? Or did its theme just go to his head?

Sometimes a writer just doesn’t have the story in them, yet a sequel must be made. And not every director is James Cameron, who can turn a bad story, cut-out characters, and clunky dialog into something almost watchable. Making good movies is damn hard, and every director is entitled to an occasional piece of crap. The maker of Looper and Knives Out can surely be forgiven a Glass Onion or two.

So perhaps we should, as Johnson suggests, mentally agree to strip “A Knives Out Mystery” from the title so that Glass Onion becomes a standalone failure in a great career, not a blot on what is otherwise his finest work.