Glass Onion and Shattering the Myth of the Inspired Billionaire

The rate at which time accelerates as one ages has left me amazed that it has been four entire years since writer-director Rian Johnson released Star Wars:  The Last Jedi into the world and set fandom on fire by challenging tropes, thwarting expectations, giving key roles to people of color and perhaps most egregiously, daring to thread ideas into entertainment like a glistening silver string through kernels of popcorn on a Christmas tree.  So does it seem fitting that as 2022 draws to a close, he does it again with Glass Onion – making a fast-paced Christie-themed whodunit where the answer to the mystery is of less importance and interest even than the social critiques driving stilettos into the hearts of so many sacred cows.

That it was made in 2021 and seems craftily tailored to address the idiocy that drove the news cycle these past twelve months has only made it land that much harder on the heads of those delicate snowflakes who drip into grimy puddles when someone pokes at the edges of their worldview – and no, I am not talking about the left, but rather the privileged right forever railing at the entropic evanescence of the privileged world in which they grew up.

Ben Shapiro, a widely-platformed conservative outrage farmer for whom I can find no actual purpose for his existence other than generating clickbait for racist suburbanites to pass around their closed Facebook groups, released a many-threaded rant on Twitter whining about Glass Onion and its not-so-veiled attacks on the intellectually vapid cohort of what I assume are his heroes like Elon Musk and Joe Rogan (their equivalents in the movie played to perfection by Edward Norton and Dave Bautista, respectively), with Shapiro suggesting – in the proverbial nutshell – that the movie was badly written and that Rian Johnson should shut up shut up SHUT UP about Musk because Johnson’s never launched any rockets (nor indeed has Shapiro for that matter, but I digress).

The sentiment behind the screed seems largely derived from a place that suggests Mr. Shapiro has a hard drive full of unproduced screenplays about “Ren Shaporo, Ace Detective” who solves crimes and owns the libs in the same breath – perhaps having failed to court those paragons of right-wing box-office gold like Kevin Sorbo and Scott Baio to express interest in starring.  Either that or he has never seen a movie before, reminding me of those old Maclean’s reviews in the 80’s that sounded like they were written by someone who ducked out of the way watching the Lumiere brothers’ The Arrival of a Train in 1896.

As much as the entertainment press likes to waste ink lauding the virtues of “disruptors” who are mainly repackaged privileged establishment types who dress sloppily, harass women and swear a lot, Rian Johnson has actually managed to disrupt in a more sneakily effective way.  Glass Onion starts off by casting the epitome of cinematic masculinity, James Bond (Daniel Craig), as a gay, foppishly-dressed Southerner and cranks everything afterwards up to eleven.  I don’t want to get into a plot summary at the risk of spoiling the experience, but the metaphor of the glass onion itself, as an object that appears to have complex layers but where what lies at the center has always been transparent and obvious, winds itself through both the heart of the story and the frills at its edges (I would go even farther than the movie does and observe that the onion also smells bad and can make you cry).  Johnson’s screenplay takes bites at our modern culture that has repeatedly seen those who are smarter and should know better (even those who aren’t necessarily smart but just loud, like Ben Shapiro) elevate the mediocre atop pedestals they have never merited, and recast bad manners and selfishness as virtues to be emulated.

This is encapsulated in the movie’s finest line of dialogue, delivered from Craig’s lips and one that merits retweeting until Elon drives that app utterly into the ground:  “It’s a dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought for speaking the truth.”  Which pretty much explains Ben Shapiro’s career, along with that of Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson (though Tuckums does think, just on how to always take the worst possible and most Putin-favorable position on everything) and the entirety of both Fox News and the New York Times opinion section.

Johnson takes repeated aim at the excuse-makers of the latter, where characters in Glass Onion try to defend the dumb behavior of the super-wealthy as eleven-dimensional chess and Craig retorts plainly, “no, it’s just dumb!”  Anointing the pedestrian, uncurious intellect of Elon Musk as a humanitarian visionary whose complex calculations simply cannot be understood by the common man, only to watch him flame out in spectacular stepping-on-rake fashion once he decided to toke his own exhaust (or glass onion fumes) and think he could serve as the ultimate arbiter of worldwide online communication, has been the clearest example of this – much to the sobs of his weirdly obsessive fan club who leap to his defense at every slight, hoping I guess that he’ll gift them with Tesla stock in return (a diminishing one at that these days).

What bakes Shapiro’s noodle and cracks his worldview is the truth that Musk, and billionaires like him, are truly no more special or inspired than anyone else – they get where they are not through genius, multi-pronged strategic thinking but with right place-right time luck and a lot of behavior that would get any one of us working stiffs fired for cause.  Johnson illustrates this several times in Glass Onion, even through the costume design for Norton’s character of Miles Bron – dressing him up in flashback first as Tom Cruise’s greasy PUA Frank T.J. Mackey character from Magnolia and then as Elizabeth Holmes – and through dialogue, having Bron speak gibberish catchphrases like they’re revelatory, world-changing wisdom.  All that is really missing from the movie is an op-ed writer character trailing Bron shaking their head over and over again at his brilliance – and ignoring the rank odor always wafting from the onion.

What must be even more infuriating to both the right-wing whingers, the worshippers of douchebro tech billionaires and those folks squatting at the intersection of those two bases, is a pivotal scene where the fragility of the monied, white patriarchal construct is utterly smashed – literally – by a poor, non-binary person of color (the terrific Janelle Monae) who inspires those around them to join in.  Having just watched Harry & Meghan, I like to also think of this scene as the best possible finale of a hypothetical Season 10 of The Crown.

It is most fitting that the movie closes with the Beatles song that gifts the story with its title and central thesis, whose lyrics John Lennon crafted with a slew of nonsense imagery as a response to obsessive fans who scrutinized his words for every possible meaning either intended or not (to wit, the infamous story of the title of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” being drawn from the initials of LSD).  “Glass onion” for Lennon wasn’t even as complex as Johnson makes it – it was slang for a monocle, either Liverpudlian patois or (more likely) invented by Lennon himself.  And what has Ben Shapiro’s stomach twisting in knots over this most recent iteration of the metaphor is that the idols for him and those who think like him have been exposed as fools.  Like the glass onion, the meaning is right there, plain and obvious, despite Shapiro’s sloughing it off by alleging bad writing – like a six year old on the losing end of a playground scrap who screams “and you’re ugly too!”:  this is all bullshit, you know it, and as special and as complicated as you try to claim it is, everyone can see the truth.

As the fable reminded us centuries ago, the Emperor has no clothes.

In the culture war, Ben Shapiro and those of his ilk in are like the Japanese soldiers marooned on outlying islands decades after WWII – frothing more at the mouth with every bit of realization that sets in that they lost, ages ago.  When art sets them off, it’s a good thing.  When a movie made for a few hours’ entertainment sends them into a tweeting rage that gets them ratioed up the wazoo, it’s even better.  If this particular art inspires a societal change that sees us finally turning away from blind worship of billionaires, its impact will be beyond measure.  That is perhaps too much to hope for from a single Netflix movie – but, as with any onion, you have to at least begin with peeling the first layer.

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