For the first time, Autostraddle is at the Toronto International Film Festival! Drew Gregory is coming to you for the next two weeks with all the LGBTQ+ movies at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Follow her on Twitter for more.
The first time I saw Janelle Monáe I was picking up trash at a music festival.
It was early in the day when Monáe got on stage. The crowd was thin but you wouldn’t know it from their performance. The moment they began the smell of old food containers wafted away. The blaring sun no longer burned. Nothing existed except Monáe. They had a quality that was impossible to ignore. For forty minutes I shirked my volunteer duties and watched one of the best concerts of my life.
I saw them again four years later at the public New York launch of their album and “emotion picture” Dirty Computer. In the time that passed, I’d gone from a straight cis boy accidentally at their event to a queer trans woman who waited two hours in line. Monáe themself had gone from a taciturn android to a pansexual “free ass motherfucker.” Once again I was mesmerized. This time by how they presented themself in their own work — and by their gay hijinks in the crowd.
Since Monáe revealed their on-screen talents in 2016 with turns in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with this singular force. Disappointments from Julie Taymor and Kasi Lemmons, the disasters of Antebellum and Welcome to Marwen, a mediocre second season of Homecoming. It feels like only Monáe themself — and, well, Barry Jenkins — is equipped to showcase their range.
Enter Rian Johnson’s anticipated Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the buzzy follow up to his 2019 success. He’s once again assembled a stellar cast and brought back Daniel Craig’s goofy private eye, Benoit Blanc. The good news: in the big ensemble Janelle Monáe emerges the star. The bad news: once again the project doesn’t match their talents.
The film begins in the early days of the pandemic. A scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.), a politician (Kathryn Hahn), a has-been model (Kate Hudson), a be-muscled MRA twitch streamer (Dave Bautista), and the mysterious Cassandra Brand (Monáe) all receive a puzzle box. It’s a gift from their friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), a very thinly veiled stand-in for Elon Musk. He has invited them to his private island to take their masks off — and solve his murder.
Benoit Blanc is the last person to receive the puzzle box. He’s been growing bored in quarantine, spending his days in the bath and longing for danger. (He’s also been zooming with his famous friends which gives the film quite possibly the most surprising cameo I’ve ever witnessed.) The box is exactly what he’s been waiting for. Soon enough he’s off to Greece joining this unlikely group of old friends.
As a murder mystery, the rest is best enjoyed spoiler-free. (There was also a warning over the loudspeaker during the credits and I’d be less scared to defy Elon Musk than the Netflix corporation.) But what I can say is the sunny setting and heightened comedy results in a one-location whodunnit that feels less Agatha Christie and more The Long Goodbye. At least, this is how it feels when its comedy is working, its twists are twisting, and its satire is the good kind of heavy-handed.
There is a lot about this movie that works — especially in its first hour. The script begins with some good jokes, fun gags, and an unexpected central mystery. Monáe is great, Craig has never had more fun, Hahn is reliably delightful, and Kate Hudson relishes in being a comically terrible person. But as the film continues, its attempts at depth falter and it makes the whole film begin to grate.
I appreciate that Johnson wants to make big budget Hollywood entertainment with something on its mind. There’s just a difference between being thoughtful and thinking that you’re being thoughtful. He seems better equipped to mock the upper class archetypes than he is to address who they hurt. Put simply, Monáe may be at the center of the film, but Johnson doesn’t know how to write who she portrays.
As audiences, we’re often asked to turn off our brains, our morals, and our experiences when watching big budget films. Most movies of this scope have a conservative bent — just think of the US propaganda machine that is Marvel — and so it should be a relief to get a film like this that is theoretically progressive. And yet I found myself feeling much the same as I do with those other films. The intention might be better but the result isn’t that different. Being othered by your allies is still being othered. Ultimately, I wish the movie had just stuck to entertainment.
People will describe this movie as fun. This movie wants to be fun. It often is fun. But certain choices stopped that fun for me. It’s possible to deal with serious topics and still be a genre film — the best genre films do just that. Monáe and their collaborators did that with Dirty Computer. The difference is that film was born from people who aligned with Monáe’s character while this one aligns with Craig’s. We are in Benoit Blanc’s point of view and he looks at the people with more power and the people with less power through the same distant observation.
I didn’t expect Rian Johnson to make Dirty Computer. I just hoped that Janelle Monáe would get to have as much fun as the rest of the cast. I’m glad Monáe was trusted with the meatiest role, but if you can’t write for a nonbinary Black person I’d rather not watch you try. Sometimes letting a person be hot and funny and wear great outfits is all the politics you need.
When it comes to the mystery, Johnson approaches his film with the delicate maneuvers of a puzzle box. When it comes to the depth, he smashes it with a hammer. For some of us, it’s harder to avoid the shards.
Ah man I really liked the first one and was excited about Monae’s casting so this isn’t great :/ I may still give it a watch, but alas
but what i unequivocally love/am excited by is your closing paragraph! gorgeous imagery
Marvel, I guess it’s a question of perception. You see it as a US propaganda machine, yet many sites out there see Marvel / Disney as the world biggest liberal Woke agenda corporation, due to their current diversity casting policy and character / gender / plot changes to accommodate such diversity. It’s hard to take your review without a grain of salt since you come to it as a Monàe fan and a trans person. As a gay person I can truly say I have found very few on screen portrayals that reflect my experiences, they may reflect some gay persons experience, just not mine and as such I don’t judge them solely because they don’t match my mine. Plus Monáe says her experience was very collaborative so I assume she had some say and approved of her character portrayal.
Came here for the review, stayed for the gloriously accurate swipe at Marvel!
I’ve been really enjoying the whodunnit Renaissance recently, so I’m still planning to see this in theaters, but I’m glad to have my expectations tempered a bit so I’m less disappointed. Thanks for a great and nuanced review as usual, Drew!
Love this review. I was deeply annoyed with the first movie for the reasons stated above. Just thank you.