Two dark comedies opened in theaters last month and are now available on streaming services. Both are set on isolated islands owned by powerful celebrities who have invited specific characters to these places for a posh event. Both screenplays contain witty references to current topics. Both events turn into murder thrillers, and both end in conflagrations. Both are highly entertaining.
Glass Onion is a hit from start to finish. In this cool, contemporary Agatha Christie homage, Daniel Craig returns as the droll Southern super sleuth Benoit Blanc, last seen in director Rian Johnson’s 2019 murder farce Knives Out. This time, tech mogul and self-proclaimed “disrupter” Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has invited an eclectic group of friends to a party. They include former model Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and her personal assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); incumbent governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) who is up for reelection; men’s rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.); and the sleek, mysterious Andi Brand (Janelle Monae). All are “disrupters” of one kind or another, explained by Miles as people who become influencers by breaking, or “disrupting,” currently accepted trends or beliefs (not unlike the disruption and great reset of the pandemic, one might observe). “I’ve sent the servants away. It’s only us on the island,” Miles tells them, as a random guy (Ethan Hawke) walks past.
Unlike an Agatha Christie novel, where the denouement rests on the revelation of a previously unknown clue, Johnson boldly and cockily films all the clues in plain sight. But we don’t see them.
The film is set in late 2020, when masks were mandatory, house parties were forbidden, and most international travel was blocked. Nevertheless, these beautiful people accept Miles Bron’s invitation to his Greek island for a weekend retreat and murder mystery party at his classy onion-shaped, glass-domed mansion, à la Gavin Newsom’s unmasked birthday soirée in California’s wine country. The Louvre is closed indefinitely for the pandemic, so Miles has casually rented the Mona Lisa for the weekend — because that’s “how the other half lives” when we look through a glass onion. As guests arrive, awkward questions about hugging or not hugging give way to mandatory throat sprays with an unnamed antiseptic. Birdie chirps, “Are we masking?” as she dons her fashionable (and useless) open-meshed mask. Claire struggles to talk as her heavy cloth mask slips down her nose and clings to her chin. “It’s okay, they’re part of my pod,” she explains later when someone on the phone questions the buzz of conversation overheard in the background, and a waiter passes hors d’oeuvres wearing both a cloth mask and an acrylic face guard. Ah, those were the never-to-be-forgotten days!
Costumes define the characters in this film, from Andi’s bold blacks and whites to Birdie’s rainbow of billowing silks to Whiskey’s lacy booty-baring concoctions and Duke’s gun-holstered speedo to Claire’s rumpled, ill-fitting suits. Blanc is rather rumpled too, but in a charming, linen-suited sort of way. And then there’s the random guy, disheveled and unexplained, who continues to show up sporadically.
As one would expect, the fictional murder mystery game soon turns into an actual murder mystery, and Blanc, our southern Hercule Poirot, steps in to solve it. Not surprisingly, the glass onion becomes a metaphor for the investigation. As director and writer Johnson peels back the layers, the unexpected backstories reveal — not so unexpectedly — that everyone has a secret, and everyone has a reason to want Miles dead. But unlike an Agatha Christie novel, where the denouement rests on the revelation of a previously unknown clue, Johnson boldly and cockily films all the clues in plain sight. But we don’t see them, because, despite the transparency, he just as boldly disrupts our focus and directs our attention elsewhere. For this reason, a second viewing is almost as fun as the first. Invite your friends for a screening of this witty, engaging, and entertaining film. I can’t wait to see Benoit Blanc’s next caper.
The film skewers the insufferably pretentious foodies so many of us know or see at restaurants, snapping photos of their meals.
In our second offering, The Menu, a dozen self-proclaimed gastronomes board a similar boat to another private island, where they will dine at “Hawthorn,” an exclusive restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), an avant-garde chef who guards his vaunted status jealously.
Well, eleven gastronomes. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a last-minute “plus-one” who prefers cheeseburgers and French fries to haute cuisine and — um, you’ll see. The film is a dark satire that skewers the insufferably pretentious foodies so many of us know or see at restaurants, snapping photos of their meals and gushing over the presentation, texture, and explosions of flavors.
As they board the boat, Margot’s date, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), is particularly excited about the adventure. He has been waiting for months to garner a reservation. When he tells Margot their tickets cost $1,250 each, she quips, “What are we eating — a Rolex?” Almost, as it turns out.
Tyler approaches each course with the eager anticipation of a contestant on Jeopardy! He has been preparing his palate to recognize the various ingredients and cooking methods they are likely to encounter, and he proudly announces each discovery, smiling expectantly for Chef’s approval as his star pupil. He is the consummate, insufferable foodie, sneaking forbidden photos of each dish and using all the au courant terms for enjoying the aromas, tastes, textures, and “mouthfeel” of each course. No matter what else happens that night (and a lot will) he is going to savor every morsel and embrace every experience.
They are hunted like prey, gorged like geese, and led like lambs to the slaughter.
Chef Julian is not to be trifled with. He runs his kitchen like a military base. Every cook has a job to do in preparing this meal, and each performs it with precision and honor. They have been through culinary boot camp, and they have learned to obey without question or concern.
This is especially true of Jeremy (Adam Aalderks), the sous chef whose privilege it is to present one of the courses for the evening. With growing horror, however, we begin to realize that this is going to be Jeremy’s first, his freshest, and his final foray into the world of celebrity chefs. From that moment forward, the film is a screamfest of anticipated foods and preparations.
The Menu is more than a biting spoof of grandiose gourmets and the fatuous foodies who follow them. “You are what you eat,” some say, and the diners in this movie become a metaphor for the kinds of foods they enjoy. They are hunted like prey, gorged like geese, and led like lambs to the slaughter. S’mores, anyone?
The Menu is more cutting-edge than Glass Onion, but I prefer the more refined concoctions of an Agatha Christie drawing room story to the bloody, cautionary tale of a PETA PSA. Christie might have just as many dead bodies at the end of the day (and maybe even more), but her murders will have occurred discretely offstage and offscreen, where I don’t have to see the blood on their shirts or the rising horror on their faces. I would much prefer to see them skewered with a barbed wit. The Menu is smart, witty, and original, but I found Glass Onion more entertaining and satisfying.