“Knives Out” is a murder mystery with a twist. It borrows classic whodunit tropes — an eccentric detective investigating an A-list ensemble wherein everyone is a suspect — but dares to tackle contemporary political concerns like immigration, class, the alt-right and Gwyneth Paltrow.
That last one might sound like a stretch until Toni Collette opens her mouth and California boho fry comes pouring out. Collette plays Joni Thrombey, a lifestyle influencer with a Goop-esque beauty company called Flam. Joni is nowhere near as successful as Paltrow — in fact, she’s stolen $100,000 from her father-in-law, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who happens to be the murder victim in question — but her New Age ethos is very much an outgrowth of What Gwyneth Hath Wrought, itself an extension of What The Internet Hath Wrought.
Collette and director Rian Johnson swear Joni isn’t a direct parody, but the similarities are hard to ignore. She’s an image-conscious peacock with luscious hair who sells pseudo-scientific wellness products, wears florals and says things like, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.” Many reviews of “Knives Out,” including in the Los Angeles Times and GQ, liken Collette’s delicious performance to Paltrow and her oft-mocked brand. Earlier this month, when Collette appeared in a faux infomercial for Flam, an Entertainment Weekly headline declared she was “channel[ing] her inner Gwyneth Paltrow.”
“For the record, in no way did I draw from Gwyneth,” Collette told me by email. “She has been an acquaintance of mine for 25 years and is nothing like Joni. I am playing someone whose life is falling apart. There is a desperation to her despite appearances.”
OK, fair. Collette made “Emma” and “The Pallbearer” with Paltrow in 1996, so presumably, she’d have ample material on which to base the character if she wanted. But the rest of the world will inevitably see Joni as a Gwyneth spoof, and “Knives Out” doesn’t do much to refute that theory. Circa 2019, it’s hard to dramatize an over-the-top cosmetics empire without evoking Goop to some degree.
But let’s take Collette at her word. Where did she find inspiration, given the ubiquity of Instagram-influencer types?
“I told her California, I told her West Coast, and I told her it’s a lifestyle guru,” Johnson said. “I didn’t say, ‘Look at Gwyneth Paltrow.’ I don’t think she did. I think there are other people online — I forget the names — who she specifically looked at and studied. But really it’s just sort of the California yoga instructor of the mind. … We talked about Goop and how this is sort of making fun of that, but no, [Gwyneth] wasn’t a specific basis for the character.”
When asked, Collette didn’t list any specific influencers she observed, citing Johnson’s script as her sole muse. “He created Flam, which, let’s face it, ain’t too dissimilar to an existing lifestyle brand name,” she said.
To wit, Johnson knew he needed a punchy one-syllable title for Joni’s company, something that sounds vaguely like a nonsensical mashup of familiar words. He also wanted a backstory about Flam’s flailing enterprise, hence the $100,000 theft. A Flam website created for the film’s marketing campaign states, “We’re sorry, due to a misunderstanding with the FDA, all products are currently unavailable at this time.”
Joni is part of a well-plotted and timely American tapestry. Johnson, a detail-oriented filmmaker whose previous credits include “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Looper,” designed each character to reflect a specific aspect of modern life: the narcissistic playboy (Chris Evans), the wannabe media mogul (Michael Shannon), the self-aggrandizing businesswoman (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her philandering husband (Don Johnson), the Trumpian extremist (Jaeden Martell), the performatively progressive college kid (Katherine Langford). Together, they comprise an obscenely rich family whose late patriarch was a mega-famous crime novelist. Naturally, they’re too self-absorbed to recall whether his dutiful nurse (Ana de Armas) emigrated from Paraguay, Uruguay or Brazil.
Rounding out the cast, a Southern-baked Daniel Craig plays the Hercule Poirot-style detective, while Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan are two hilarious investigators on the case.
“One of the exciting things for me was the idea of taking this old genre, which you usually see as a period piece, and doing it in 2019 in America,” Johnson said. “What’s exciting about that is not just skinning it with a modern-day look, but really having each of the characters be people who could only be around today. They’re caricatures in the same way the characters in a Clue game are, except with modern-day types. So you have the internet troll and you have the lifestyle guru — that was a world that seemed very funny to me. And then we have Toni’s daughter, Meg, who’s the perpetual liberal-arts student, all the way to the conservative asshole. It’s all about creating your range of suspects and using that as a real cross-section of society right now.”
Johnson didn’t devise Flam’s entire slate of goods, but he did invent a mission statement: “Self-determination with the acknowledgment of human need.” It’s just ridiculous enough to sound farcical and just philosophical enough to sound legitimate.
“Every single one of these people has a fiction built up around themselves, that they are entirely self-made and anyone who hasn’t made it is because they haven’t worked as hard as them,” he said. “So the idea of even the Flam philosophy, in its own hippie-dippie way, tying into that idea seemed very interesting to me. And it’s always fun to have a character who’s all openly about presentation, who has the mask, the makeup, the veneer. Of course, what’s fun about that is developing the cracks. You can see through to the actual fear and desperation behind that perfect facade. That’s what’s entertaining, period, about Instagram, even for all of us using it. It’s weird how you’re trying to make your life look perfect on Instagram.”
Beyond that desperation, Collette’s goal was to “find the funny” in Joni — the “chewy” accent, the artificial smile, the annoyed head tilt, the “classic ‘what, this little old thing?’” approach to her wardrobe. You can imagine all of those elements shining through in a scene that Johnson cut from the movie but plans to include among the home-entertainment features. It involves Craig’s private eye confronting Joni about her merchandise.
“‘I ordered your snail jelly moisturizer. I have sensitive skin, you can probably tell,’” he says to her, according to Johnson.
The director went on: “And then he got a rash using it, and that led him to message boards where he found out everyone was getting rashes who was using this junk. And that led him to realize her company is totally bust. And the way she reacts to it — it’s a great scene between the two of them.”
Snail jelly moisturizer sure sounds Goopian. So, is Joni inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow? Yes and no. In a way, aren’t we all inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow?
“What’s amazing to me about an actor like Toni — and all the actors in this movie — is the fact that she can go that big with it and still have it feel like it has a foot on the ground in a way that will work for the movie,” Johnson said. “That, to me, is my favorite kind of performance. That’s like a magic trick to me. And we couldn’t have gone that big with the character with a lesser actor. It would have broke. It would have felt like a parody. But she feels like a real person.”