A confession: I like Adam Sandler. As lukewarm as his current reputation is — there’s no denying stinkers like, say, Jack and Jill or The Ridiculous 6 — he’s got films like Punch-Drunk Love and, more recently, The Meyerowitz Stories on his résumé. He can do good work. And his name still subsumes everything around it; hence Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck, written by James Vanderbilt, and streaming on Netflix now, is “an Adam Sandler movie.” It’s no Punch-Drunk Love, but it’s on the better end of the spectrum when it comes to Sandler’s streaming selections.
As suggested by its title, Murder Mystery centers on a murder mystery. Billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp) is dead, and it’s down to Nick (Sandler) and Audrey Spitz (Jennifer Aniston) to figure out who did it. The specifics vault the story into the realm of comedy: Nick and Audrey are taking an extremely belated honeymoon, and are the sole American tourists aboard the yacht upon which Quince is murdered, having been invited aboard by the dashing, mysterious Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans). Everybody else on the boat is somehow related to Quince, and the fact that the Spitzes aren’t makes them the prime suspects.
The chaos that ensues is an Agatha Christie murder mystery with two audience surrogates along for the ride. As the cherry on top of the cake, Audrey is obsessed with mystery novels, and Nick is a police sergeant, so they can quip about and marvel at the unfolding case as if they weren’t participants but audience members. They might as well be breaking the fourth wall, though Vanderbilt’s script mercifully stops just short of using that particular storytelling device.
Naturally, however, the Spitzes’ vantage point means that there are effectively two movies smashed into one. There’s the murder mystery, and then there’s the marriage comedy that Nick and Audrey are playing out. He’s been lying to her about being promoted to detective, and only books the Europe trip he’d promised her when they got married years ago when she yells at him for forgetting their anniversary. It’s fairly cut and dry — he’s the schlub, she’s the shrew — but the storyline (actually benefits from having to share space, as the expected bickering is automatically made less of a priority in favor of watching them work together.
The trappings of, say, Murder on the Orient Express are fantastic to the everyday reader (or viewer), but laughably fancy and out of the realm of imagination on a realistic level. So when Nick and Audrey laugh in disbelief at being at the same party as a maharajah, it feels completely relatable. Granted, that energy isn’t enough to carry an entire movie, which is where the charm of the rest of the cast kicks in.
The assembled cast of Murder Mystery is terrific — in addition to Stamp and Evans, Gemma Arterton, David Walliams, John Kani, Adeel Akhtar, Shioli Kutsuna, and Dany Boon help move the film along, each playing stereotypes that range from the vain actress (Arterton) to the menacing army general (Kani). They’re all outsized characters, à la the guests in Clue. We’re just watching somebody else play the game.
That said, Akhtar and Boon are the standouts. Akhtar goes against type — as the maharajah, he introduces himself to the Spitzes by bowing three times, which they awkwardly reciprocate, before bursting into laughter and noting that “when a brown person bows, white people bow back” — whereas Boon (who was so splendid in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs) leans into the stereotype of sardonic detective, blowing smoke rings wherever he goes.
As for the film’s leads, Sandler and Aniston make a good couple. On top of bouncing well off of each other, the fact that they’re supposed to be the most normal characters in the room means they don’t have to rely on sloppy bits and punch-up jokes to maintain viewer interest. Collectively, they’re the film’s straight man, reacting to the crazy things happening around them rather than necessarily instigating them.
Things wrap up fairly conveniently, but that’s arguably part of the film’s appeal. As with any paperback mystery read — like those Audrey loves — anyone cracking into a Sandler-Netflix movie is likely looking for something with a neat conclusion. Murder Mystery has just that, while also managing to poke enough fun at the genre to feel at least a little fresh.