[An edited version of this review was initially published on The Playlist, and can be viewed here.]
What most people might expect to be a source of endless riffing – or, at least, what I expected – in Netflix’s “Murder Mystery” is something the movie never really acknowledges, let alone uses as a punchline. Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, America’s eternal schmuck and its ageless beacon of beauty, playing a couple of 15 years? “Surely there’s gotta be some joke in there,” I kept thinking to myself over its 100ish minutes.
There isn’t, and in a movie that uses nimble meta fingers to play around with Agatha Christie tropes in contemporary Europe, I’m not sure whether the hesitancy to poke fun at “Murder Mystery’s” most eye-catching detail is a result of restraint or a missed opportunity to dive further into the goofier personality of a movie that has too many of them to ever feel cinematically unique.
Essentially, that mystery defines watching “Murder Mystery,” an experience that’s perhaps as amusing as we should expect, given its platform and lack of real surprise. Netflix has ushered in a world where the decision of what new movies to watch is as low-stakes as ever, and if “Murder Mystery” – a movie with lots of homicide and a couple on the run from the law in a foreign country – is triumphant about one thing, it’s its complete absence of stakes.
The more I convince myself that was intentional, the more I feel like the movie isn’t entirely disposable.
The latest Sandler-Netflix collaboration – directed by Kyle Newacheck from a James Vanderbilt script – begins with Nick and Audrey Spitz finally making good on a years-delayed promise of honeymooning across the Atlantic, but before they’ve even arrived the lines of realism begin to shift. On the long plane ride they meet Luke Evans’s Charles Cavendish, sporting a charisma transplanted from the upper-class world of “Downton Abbey.” His introduction injects mystery and a sense of devilish intention into a story that, up until this point, has relied on a familiar formula of one-liner jokes and the dwindling of life opportunities is a long-simmering marriage.
It would be off-putting if the movie hadn’t hinted at its own intentions a few minutes before, with the camera pulled up tight on Audrey reading an Agatha Christine novel and Nick promptly commenting on it, just in case we missed the visual cue.
The rest of “Murder Mystery” – which mires the Spitzs in international scandal and fish-out-of-water shenanigans – sees the movie putting on several different hats. It ping-pongs between varying brands of humor – most obviously, Sandler’s brash candidness and parody of old-school, well, murder mysteries – without ever really going all in on one or the either.
At the same time, Vanderbilt’s screenplay makes not-so-subtle attempts at pure suspense that are never as punchy as I’d assume he’d like them to be, though the more he succeeds the more the movie feels tonally imbalanced. Mysterious characters have a tendency to turn up at the most mysterious of times with an admittedly delightful lack of subtlety, but Newacheck can never quite create a believable balance in writing them as scheming murderers in one moment and silly caricatures the next.
Sandler and Aniston should be credited, though, for bringing enough comedic chops to keep “Murder Mystery” from being totally devoid of humor. As a drama, you’d be better off not expecting something that matches against, say, “Zodiac” (an earlier Newacheck screenplay that much more deftly shades the margins of its dark heart with humor). But when it comes to pure humor, the movie’s an acceptable bit of fun for a Netflix offering and, importantly, not overlong.
The movie seems constantly at a tug-of-war with itself, but sometimes that works to its benefit, particularly when it comes to the juxtaposition of Sandlerisms and the high-class weirdness Nick and Audrey are enveloped into. There’s a charm that shines through at points – an effective bit of timing from Aniston, an off-the-cuff comment from Sandler – that hints at what “Murder Mystery” could have been if it focused on its comedic elements; there’s an awkward yet enticing creative spirit in mixing the leads’ urban, modern spirit with the antiquated environment around them, like sprinkling skittles into caviar.
And even though the screenplay ultimately doesn’t give either of them the space to make good on that potential, watching the movie will hardly make you roll your eyes, either. The Sandler apologist and Sandler derider won’t have to come to blows over what the actor is doing in “Murder Mystery.” In fact, this actually might be the rare opportunity for them to break bread; Sandler outshines the rest of cast in being able to balance the bleak and the hilarious.
You can recognize the patterns in the plot of “Murder Mystery” fairly easily, and might even be able to correctly solve the whodunit. But that appeal lies in being able to keep in lockstep with the film’s twists and turns; in the end, it asks us to switch off and switch on different parts of our brain with much too inconsistent a pace so as us to prevent from ever really tuning into its dramatic frequencies for prolonged stretches.
In keeping with the movie’s mission of being many things at once – a rom-com, a thriller, a low-budget actioneer – “Murder Mystery” also makes an honest if flat attempt at sentimentality that, admirably, is never meant to be taken as an emotional core so much as a springboard for an action-packed finale. I’d call it surprising, too, if it felt like the mystery’s ultimate destination cared at all about not seeming as if it was picked out of a hat of potential endings. Things were always going to tidy up a bit too nicely for a story so bloodlessly violent; it just mattered that we smiled and laughed along the way.
“Murder Mystery” is rated PG-13 for violence/bloody images, crude sexual content and language
Starring: Adam Sander, Jennifer Aniston, Luke Evans, Terence Stamp
Directed by Kyle Newacheck