Earlier this month, Netflix released a new film titled Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck and written by James Vanderbilt. If the title doesn’t give much away, the ad placement seems to: Adam Sandler’s newly mustachioed face and the sounds of a New York City street in the film’s opening scene greeted me every time I have opened Netflix in the past two weeks. As all good advertising executives know, repetition is the mother of desire, and eventually my morbid curiosity won out.
While it’s true that Sandler’s roles over the past decade or so have become the butt of a collective cultural joke, it’s important to remember that he’s been a major comedic force for the better part of his career. A long stint at SNL that ended in 1995 helped launch Sandler to big-screen fame and his series of successes in the late ’90s and early ’00s cemented his place as a key player in Millennial culture. I don’t know if these films hold up; I haven’t watched them in years and I assume, like most things created between ’95-’06, some may be better left behind. What I do know is that sometime after 2005, Sandler began to fall out of favor with the general public. More accurately, his newer films did not receive praise of the same magnitude and certainly did not appear to have the cultural staying power of his earlier work.
I’ve felt that way pretty consistently for the past 12 years or so, but Sandler’s standup special released in the fall of last year impressed me. Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh isn’t ground breaking but it made me laugh, and it’s worth watching if you enjoy his traditional brand of musical comedy. All this to say I had mixed feelings jumping into Murder Mystery, because I would hesitate before any content featuring Sandler. Would this be yet another entry in a long list of poor choices and performances that appear to shape this comic’s second act? Or are we standing at the start of a Sandler renaissance? As a huge fan of murder mysteries fictitious and not, fueled by nostalgia for a simpler time filled with hours of Big Daddy and Mr. Deeds, I wanted this effort to stand out.
The film opens on Nick Spitz (Sandler), NYPD cop and generally miserable prick, insulting his partner Jimmy (Erik Griffin)’s weight. Without spoiling too much, within the first five minutes of the film the audience learns that Nick is extremely cheap, possesses almost no interpersonal awareness or empathy, and has lied to his wife about his rank in the police department and, by extension, his salary for at least a few years. Cut to his wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), who complains to her friends and coworkers at the hair salon that Nick promised her a honeymoon in Europe when they wed 15 years prior, but has yet to follow through. This relationship defines both characters for the rest of the film. Nick displays his complete lack of social intelligence and mortifies Audrey repeatedly. Why she remains in this relationship with a man who does not know how to talk to other humans is never explained or even addressed.
Before long, the two find themselves on their belated European honeymoon, and the narrative arc of the film starts to take shape. Audrey meets the prohibitively wealthy, entrancingly English Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) who invites them to join him for a high-society party when their flight lands. The two working-class Americans excitedly accept and quickly become entwined in an over-the-top, near-spoof homage to classic murder mysteries of the past. A cast of wealthy influencers and misfits, driven by greed, revenge, and misanthropy, all try to get to the bottom of the case without becoming the next victim. All the while, Nick and Audrey bumble their way through tense moments and crime scenes, completely incapable of shame or growth. This goes on for about an hour and a half, leading to an identity reveal that hinges entirely on less than clever wordplay about butlers.
Murder Mystery has its moments, though they are too few and far between. A visual gag in which the film mocks its own CGI, a repeated callback to a seemingly innocuous decision early on, the absurd scenarios and methods used in each murder—its not that I didn’t laugh for the entire run-time. In fact, if you enjoyed 1985’s Clue adaptation, you may feel caught up in the central intrigue of Murder Mystery from the first time the lights suddenly go out. The ridiculous relationships between the pool of potential victims and the unpredictable nature of the kills could probably drive this movie on their own, which leaves the least enjoyable part of the film: the constant presence of Nick and Audrey.
For what it’s worth, Aniston and Sandler appear to try their best with what they’ve been given, and Audrey does occasionally win the audience’s attention. Nick, however, is entirely unlikeable, and their relationship accomplishes nothing throughout. The lack of redeeming qualities in their marriage threatens, at multiple times, to derail the entire narrative. Together, they manifest the worst parts of a family vacation: the stress, the social embarrassment, the complete unfamiliarity with surroundings. If the filmmakers intended their protagonists to be detestable, they succeeded with flying colors. It just doesn’t add much to the film. And if we’re meant to cheer them on, I only ever found myself hoping the focus would return to the mystery and leave the Spitz’s behind.
I cannot help but feel that the film would improve significantly with one of the two protagonists at its center rather than a couple. Audrey, obsessed with mystery novels, finds herself swept up in the drama. Nick, ornery and jaded police officer, begrudgingly works the case to clear his name. But the two together feel like a chore for the audience to get through on the way to the story that matters much more. Maybe this change wouldn’t fix anything, and the film is flawed across the board. I wanted less forced couple comedy out of Murder Mystery and more, well… murder mystery.
If you’re looking for a silly take on the classic murder mystery that does not seek to challenge viewers or bring anything new to the table, you could do worse than watching this. If you’re looking for redemption for Sandler, you may even find it in the respect Murder Mystery pays to the giants of the genre. But if you’re looking for a movie on Netflix that you’d willingly pay to see in theaters, you may want to keep looking.