‘Glass Onion’s’ Rian Johnson on Spoofing Elon Musk and the Art of Satire

Writer George S. Kaufman once said that “satire is what closes on Saturday night.” But nearly a century later, as real life has grown more absurd than most art, satire is everywhere — from popular franchises such as the “Knives Out” films and “The White Lotus” to hits including “Parasite.”

Why now? In our post-Trump world, where truth is subject to debate and issues like racism are impossible for anyone to ignore, talk-show monologues and “Saturday Night Live” skits became some of the only critiques able to break through the noise of political squabbling and call out lies, arguably paving the way for more films dealing in satire. 

“Satire always puts events into a societal context, often dealing with hierarchies and economic influences. So if you want to examine the times we are living in, it’s a good starting place,” says writer-director Ruben Östlund, whose “Triangle of Sadness” skewers influencers, one-percenters and class divisions. “You’re a bit immune to political correctness. As long as you cover a topic from a clinical point of view, the audience doesn’t know if you’re making fun of their prejudices or exposing your own. Satirizing creates a safe spot to explore controversial topics and provoke thought, while allowing you to be wildly entertaining.”

It can also add a punch to mainstream fare, as Rian Johnson showed with 2019’s whodunnit “Knives Out” and its sequel, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which earned six Critics Choice and two Golden Globe noms (including best picture — musical or comedy), and an estimated $15 million in a week-long theatrical run before its Netflix bow. “Onion” star Edward Norton will remind many of a certain Twitter mogul, just as Dave Bautista echoes a bald bro podcaster and Kate Hudson mirrors many narcissistic influencers.     

“It’s obviously the result of just living in the world over the past six years, and wanting to scream back at it a bit,” writer-director Johnson says. “I worked pretty hard to bake those points into an entertainment. … [Satire] was a big part of the whole reason for these movies.” 

It also honors the films that inspired him, “engaging with what we’re all thinking and talking about now, which is what Agatha Christie was doing back in the day…. When I first talked to Edward about the [sequel], I said, ‘We’re going a little more ‘[Dr.] Strangelove’ with this one.’ If we’re going to reflect the past six years, it’s gonna get a little ‘Strangelove.’”

Numerous satires have done well at the Academy Awards, from Frank Capra’s 1938 social satire “You Can’t Take It With You” (best picture and director) to the 1950 theater saga “All About Eve” (best picture and five more wins) to the 1964 war comedy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (four noms). The 1972 French middle-class sendup “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (foreign-language film), the prescient 1976 TV news takedown “Network” (four Oscars), the 1999 study of suburban mores “American Beauty” (best picture and four more trophies) and the 2002 fame and media sendup “Chicago” (best pic and five more wins) followed. More recently, the 2017 horror film/racism satire “Get Out” won original screenplay, the 2019 South Korean thriller commenting on class divisions, “Parasite,” nabbed best picture, three more Oscars and a $262 million worldwide gross and the 2021 climate change allegory “Don’t Look Up” scored four noms.

Film historian and AFI Awards jury chair Jeanine Basinger, author of “Hollywood: The Oral History” (co-written with Sam Wasson), points out that most new satires aren’t as pure as the 1997 political comedy “Wag the Dog.” They’re usually attached to other genres as the draw, such as the $36.5 million-grossing horror-comedy “The Menu,” which sends up wealthy foodies as a cult, with stars Ralph Fiennes and Anna Taylor-Joy landing Golden Globe noms. Basinger says today’s younger audiences “don’t want anything too loving or human, so they like a lot of films with satiric overtones. And it’s a good way of getting people to accept political issues they might not want to.”

Defining satire can get tricky. “The Banshees of Inisherin” may appear to use two friends’ self-destructive battle to satirize Ireland’s decades of conflict. But Basinger says “it’s [just] a metaphor. The film is more of an Irish fable. You could take out [its Irish Civil War backdrop] and have the same film.” And the antic, absurdist humor in Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise” (which earned Adam Driver a Globe nom) can cloud its satire of academia, pharmaceuticals and panic over an “airborne toxic event.” 

And, as Johnson points out, targets may not be as specific as they appear. “With Edward Norton’s character, the moment I started thinking about any one tech billionaire, it got uninteresting, as opposed to this odd American thing we have of mistaking wealth for wisdom or competence,” he says. “On the one hand, we want to sling arrows at them. And on the other, I think all of us also have some weird [fantasy] where we hope they’re going to be Willy Wonka and take us up in the glass elevator. That, to me, is interesting, as opposed to just making fun of some dude in Texas.”

Has Johnson’s parody of the wealthy been shaped by his own rags-to-riches tale, which took him from indie fare like 2005’s “Brick” to a Netflix deal for two “Knives Out” sequels that could reportedly earn him more than $100 million? “I think there is a lot of humor, like [our detective’s] reaction to the [billionaire’s] island, that’s drawn from personal experiences where rich people rules apply, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” he laughs.

While Swedish auteur Östlund hasn’t gone Hollywood yet, he’s had success making satires overseas. His 2014 sendup of masculinity and relationships, “Force Majeure,” in which a father flees as his family faces an avalanche, won him the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes. Lampooning the art world in 2017’s “The Square” earned him the Palme d’Or at Cannes. He got a second one for “Triangle,” his tale of a yacht cruise where the class structure is upended, which won best film, director and screenwriter at December’s European Film Awards.

One scene, where a male model (Harris Dickinson) argues with his richer model girlfriend (Charlbi Dean) over who’ll pay the check, came from his own experience. His mother’s belief in communism led to “constant political debate in my home,” which he spoofs in “Triangle.” And his next film with “Triangle” star Woody Harrelson, “The Entertainment System Is Down,” sends up our dependence on technology by showing it breaking down on a long flight. “It’s partly based on a study that found we get more upset when we lose our phone than when we lose our partner,” he laughs.  

Östlund has even parodied himself — and awards season — in a 2015 YouTube short. “When we didn’t get nominated for ‘Force Majeure,’ me and the producer Erik Hemmendorff had a fun time creating this clip called ‘Swedish director freaks out when he misses out on Oscar nomination,’” he laughs. “I don’t feel that I have to play the role of a prestigious director.” 

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