It starts as a game for the amusement of a tech billionaire. Miles Bron, a would-be master of the universe played with knowing exuberance by Edward Norton, invites a small group of friends to a party on his private island. The weekend’s entertainment will be a make-believe murder mystery, with Miles himself as the victim and center of attention. By the end, real homicides have been committed and the fun has become democratic, as rank-and-file ticket buyers and Netflix subscribers enjoy themselves at the expense of imaginary members of the economic, political and cultural elite.
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” revives the antic, puzzle-crazy spirit of the first “Knives Out,” which was also written and directed by Rian Johnson. This time the satirical stakes have been raised. Miles Bron is a riper target with more recognizable real-world analogues than the eccentric novelist played by Christopher Plummer the first time around. A lone musketeer of disruption, he spouts mantras about the glory of “breaking stuff,” and cloaks his bottomless greed and shallow narcissism in showy messianic robes. He’s not just a rich guy: He’s a visionary, a genius, an author of the amazing human future.
Miles’s friends are all bought and paid for: a model-turned-fashion mogul (Kate Hudson); an idealistic scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.); a pumped-up, over-inked men’s rights YouTube influencer (Dave Bautista); and the governor of Connecticut (Kathryn Hahn). The people named in those parentheses have a grand time sending up contemporary archetypes, and are joined in the whodunit high jinks by Madelyn Cline as Bautista’s girlfriend and by Jessica Henwick, quietly stealing scenes as Hudson’s assistant.
Two other guests show up for the murder game, though they don’t seem to be there in the same hedonistic spirit as the rest. One is Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), known as Andi, Miles’s erstwhile business partner. She is a familiar figure in tech mythology, the genius present at the creation who is cast out by a more ambitious, unscrupulous or media-savvy co-founder. The Eduardo Saverin to Miles’s Mark Zuckerberg, you might say, or maybe the Wozniak to his Jobs.
Andi’s presence on the island is something of a surprise, as is — though not to “Knives Out” fans — the arrival of Benoit Blanc, the world’s greatest detective. Blanc is once again played by a floridly post-Bond Daniel Craig, now sporting an absurd but somehow appropriate collection of neckerchiefs and pastel shirts, and speaking in what was once described as a “Kentucky Fried Chicken Foghorn Leghorn” accent. My ear also picks up undertones of Truman Capote and a sprinkling of Adam Sandler’s “Cajun Man” character from “S.N.L.”
A descendant of Lieutenant Columbo, Hercule Poirot and Edgar Allan Poe’s genre-creating C. Auguste Dupin, Blanc is both a diviner of hidden meanings and a master of the obvious, the soul of discretion and a hogger of the spotlight. He is uncompromising in matters of taste, ethics and English usage, as well as a wet-eyed sentimentalist and a man who likes to have a good time.
In that way, he may be Johnson’s avatar. A pop-culture savant with technique to spare, Johnson approaches the classic detective story with equal measures of breeziness and rigor. The plot twists and loops, stretching logic to the breaking point while making a show of following the rules. I can’t say much about what happens in “Glass Onion” without giving away some surprises, but I can say that some of the pleasure comes from being wrong about what will happen next.
Which means that, by the end, when Blanc wraps it all up and the party disperses, you may feel a little let down. That’s in the nature of the genre, but as in “Knives Out” Johnson turns the committing and solving of crimes into a trellis to be festooned with gaudy characters. The core ensemble does what amounts to superior sketch-comedy work, rising enough above caricature to keep you interested. Monáe goes further, turning what at first seems like the least complex, most serious character into — but I’m afraid if I told you, you would have to kill me.
I also won’t give away any jokes. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed out loud in a movie theater, but I did, partly because a lot of people around me were laughing, too. (I don’t know if the effect would be the same watching the movie at home on Netflix.) “Glass Onion” is completely silly, but it’s not only silly. Explicitly set during the worst months of the Covid pandemic — the spring of 2020 — “Glass Onion” leans into recent history without succumbing to gloom, bitterness or howling rage, which is no small accomplishment. One way to interpret the title is that a glass onion may be sharp, and may have a lot of layers, but it won’t make you cry.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Rated PG-13. Murder, for laughs. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes. In theaters.