This past weekend we watched two of the new batch of “whodunits” — “Glass Onion” with Daniel Craig, and “See How They Run” with Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan.
“Glass Onion” is a sequel of sorts to the 2019 surprise hit “Knives Out,” starring Craig as the “world’s greatest detective” (with a vaguely French Creole accent) Benoit Blanc. Netflix, which financed the film, released it into movie theaters for only a week before pulling it back and re-premiering it (is that a word?) on the streaming platform — an unusual move that apparently raised concerns in Hollywood that other studios will soon follow suit, hurting the already-struggling movie theater industry.
“Knives Out” kicked off a “mini-boom” in old-fashioned drawing room-type mysteries of the sort popularized by Agatha Christie novels in the 1930s and 1940s, and memorably spoofed in the ’70s and ’80s by films such as “Murder By Death” and “Clue.” “Glass Onion” both has its cake and eats it, skillfully walking the line between spoof and genuine locked-room mystery.
Blanc receives a mysterious invite to a private party at a luxurious island off of the coast of Greece. The island is owned by the enigmatic Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a goofy tech billionaire whose empire includes websites and an alternative energy source called “Klear,” derived from hydrogen. Each year, he invites a small group of early supporters — he calls them his “disruptors” — to a fabulous weeklong vacation at one of his properties. The “disruptors” include the governor of Connecticut (Kathryn Hahn) who’s seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate (backed by Bron’s money), a podcasting lunkhead men’s rights activist (Dave Bautista), and Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) — the woman who was the real brains behind Bron’s empire until they had a vicious falling-out over Bron’s recklessness.
You see, Bron is prone to making grandiose (and often factually incorrect) statements and stealing credit for other people’s ideas. (If you’re thinking he’s a thinly disguised Elon Musk, go to the head of the class.)
The vacation is supposed to serve as a murder-mystery party, where the guests will be solving Bron’s fictional killing. But there are two big problems — one is that he claims he didn’t actually invite Benoit Blanc to the party. The other is that Blanc solves the puzzle within the first few minutes, enraging Bron and annoying the other guests.
It may seem like I’m giving you a lot of spoilers, but everything I’ve described happens in the first 10 minutes or so. Pretty soon, Blanc is tasked with unraveling a real murder (or two) and just as in a classic “whodunit,” we learn that no one is exactly who they seem to be. It all wraps up, more or less, with a satisfying ending.
I really enjoyed “Knives Out” and wanted to enjoy “Glass Onion” at the same level, but I found the setting — the titular “glass onion,” a combination greenhouse and super-villain lair — a little bit inappropriate for this kind of a drawing room mystery. The film also can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a comedy-drama or a comedy-action movie — several scenes seem to be designed to poke fun at Daniel Craig’s portrayals of James Bond — which spoils the cozy, whodunit atmosphere. (There are other “Easter eggs” that shout out to some of Craig’s other movies, including “Logan Lucky.”)
But even if it’s not as good as “Knives Out,” it’s still a lot of fun, mostly due to Craig — he may have created a whole new franchise for himself with the character of Benoit Blanc — and Monáe, who absolutely steals the movie. Don’t bother trying to solve the mystery yourself: You have virtually no chance of unraveling the plot twists until they’re laid out for you in a series of flashbacks. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Uncle Jay says “check it out.”
“See How They Run” is much more in the mold of traditional whodunits, right down to the 1950s Middle England setting. Much of the movie is set behind-the-scenes at the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End, where a stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is celebrating its 100th performance. An American director (Adrian Brody), chased out of Hollywood due to the anti-Communist blacklist, has been recruited to turn the stage play into a feature film.
The director is a notorious drunk and a skirt-chaser who holds the English theater scene in utter contempt. After he flirts with the wife of Richard Attenborough, there’s a boozy brawl, and sure enough, the director is dead before the opening credits are completed.
Police Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell) is assigned to investigate the director’s death, along with an eager young constable, W.P.C. Stalker (Ronan).
If you like Agatha Christie and the lore surrounding her career, you’ll love all of the in-jokes scattered throughout “See How They Run.” Writer Mark Chappell and director Tom George do everything but hang lampshades and neon signs on the references to “The Mousetrap” and other Christie works.
(One of the early plot points is that, contractually, the movie version of “The Mousetrap” can’t be released until six months after the play closes in the West End. The joke’s on the fictional film’s producers, because as any fule kno, “The Mousetrap” has been playing on stage in London continuously, except for a break during the COVID-19 lockdowns, since 1952.)
Like “Glass Onion,” “See How They Run” walks the line between being an actual mystery movie, and a gentle spoof of 1950s British mysteries. The film drags a little bit in the middle, and to be honest, it’s not exactly new territory to send-up Agatha Christie cliches. People (including James Thurber, no relation to moi) have been making fun of Christie’s mysteries since the 1930s.
Still, “See How They Run” is good fun, and it’s suitably wrapped up with a dramatic ending involving a last-minute white-knuckle drive through a snowstorm. Although Sam Rockwell gets top billing, his character isn’t well defined and it’s hard to really feel much affection or sympathy for him; instead, Saoirse Ronan is the real star, striking just the right balance between competence and naivete as a young woman police constable trying to prove herself. She gets most of the big laughs yet never devolves into a caricature.
A great movie? No, but it’s another good popcorn film for a cold winter’s night. Uncle Jay says check this one out, too.
- “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is streaming on Netflix.
- “See How They Run” is available for rental or purchase from Amazon Prime.