This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Peter Labuza’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
One of the main complaints repeated around Glass Onion as was in Knives Out is whether the numerous references to reality and “the present” to put it bluntly, is a shtick. I think if you pick up any Christie novel or watch any of the early 30s films like The Thin Man, you will find actually a surprising number of references, whether to Princess Elizabeth, Mary Augusta Ward, or the Dick Jurgens Band, things that will immediately set the era. I actually like this ambition in Johnson’s films; rather than build something timeless (impossible to achieve), he makes them deliberately of their time. The problem that Johnson runs into is not necessarily one of his own making, whether publishing in Collier’s or simply in mass production (apparently the most translated author of her time), Christie relied on a mass audience. Johnson lives in a time in which media circulation is now entirely different, and his media diet is defined by a Twitter / MSNBC stream most of us are familiar with but might not play with the Okies. But if he were building in a more cohesive set of references, I guess the result would be a number of deep cuts for Tucker Carlson audiences.
I don’t really find critiques of Johnson’s politics here persuasive in the general; that the rich have privilege and use it to their advantage is the core of most detective fiction. I think Johnson perhaps tries to paint a little too strongly into it by having to develop a character like Blanc who is defined by their loquacious tendencies. I found the most effective shot in the film to be the cut out to Monáe grabbing the hammer after the Wes Anderson set up, a stylistic rebuke to what we had just seen (and I assume Johnson borrowing from the jail scene in PTA’s The Master). Johnson is a genuinely good director of the camera; it’s rare that he moves the camera without purpose, and something that really brought a film like The Last Jedi to be more than Disney-mandated product. I think here he could have trusted his image making instincts, notably when the production design can speak quite a bit for him.
The reason why Glass Onion works much less than Knives Out is the fundamental structure of the mystery itself and the performances it relies on. In the first film, Johnson pulled an early switcharoo: the (presumed) killer was our protagonist and we spent our entire film identifying with her POV as she avoided the suspicions of our detective. That there was another killer and twist was not particularly relevant—what was fascinating to watch was how Johnson structured our perspective from Ana De Armas’s fascinating performance rather than figure out the mystery. Glass Onion doesn’t pull a rug until most of the plot points have occurred, meaning we are set entirely in Blanc’s POV and mostly left to wonder who is to do it. I still find that hour to be particularly fun—the actors are all game enough—but it means that when we return to the mystery, we get exposition point after exposition point in the scenes as we return to them. Even though there is the Big Suspense (who is the killer?), there is no suspense in the scenes leading up to Where We Left Off. Johnson’s best films like Looper and parts of The Last Jedi are about switching POVs, but something about this structural gambit needed something to hold it together. Which brings me to…
I genuinely wonder what this film would look like with a more chameleon like actor like Jessica Henwick here switched into the Monáe role. Partly the character, I found her affable and down to Earth in a way much easier than how Monáe plays Helen. I don’t think you can make a case that Monáe is supposed to be bad in her early monologue taking down Norton’s disruptors speech as the second half makes clear. I think there is being out of place and then there is not fitting into the diegesis of the film, and Monáe kind of always made clear to me in every scene “now I am going to act.” I’ve grown into whatever Craig is doing and will gladly enjoy a third production, and I think it’s probably time to give him a genuine Nora [Norman?] Charles.
Most of this film looks good, especially under the decent projection most audiences won’t have access to now. The CGI, especially in the end, makes it look indistinguishable from Red Notice. This doesn’t seem like the kind of film where Netflix forced a lot of changes and what not; I think Johnson has a track record of building studio ready product and that’s kind of what makes him fascinating. I think of ways to waste a lot of Silicon Valley money, a vacation trip in Greece during COVID is a smart way.