Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix release, Murder Mystery, isn’t going to dispel the longstanding rumor that the Sandman mostly makes movies as an excuse to go on paid vacations, using his Happy Madison production shingle as a personal travel agency. Yes, the movie is set at an assortment of pricey European resort towns, and, yes, there are moments when Sandler and co-star Jennifer Aniston (last seen together in the execrable Just Go With It) stop to excitedly compliment the luxury of their surroundings, like hosts in a travel video. Yet one can’t deny that this low-energy whodunit seems have benefitted from the overall uptick in quality control seen in the star’s more recent Netflix projects, including The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), The Week Of, and his reunion with an uncredited Paul Thomas Anderson on parts of the stand-up special 100% Fresh. Could it be that the actor-comedian actually cares about his reputation?
Wearing his Danny Meyerowitz mustache (it’s a good look!), Sandler stars as Nick Spitz, a penny-pinching New York cop who’s never given his mystery-novel-obsessed wife, Audrey (Aniston), the European honeymoon he promised her before they got married. The closest they’ve had to a vacation together was a trip to a funeral in the Poconos. Realizing on the night before their 15th wedding anniversary that the $50 Amazon gift card he bought at the corner bodega probably isn’t going to cut it, Nick finally caves in and books a flight to Spain with the plan of taking an extremely budget-conscious continental tour on a bus with no air conditioning. The highlight: a visit to the small Italian town where they can finally learn how smoked ham is made.
But fate quickly offer a more glamorous alternative. While sneaking into first class to steal a pair of complimentary earplugs, Audrey strikes up an unlikely friendship with Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans), a fabulously rich English aristocrat. He’s getting plastered on his way to Spain for a less-than-happy occasion: His billionaire uncle, Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp), is getting married to Charles’ former fiancée, Suzi (Shioli Kutsuna), and has invited his closest friends and relations on a celebratory pleasure cruise. In part to annoy the other guests, Charles asks the Spitzes to join him aboard his uncle’s super-yacht.
Before long, they’re gobbling hors d’oeuvres and awkwardly hobnobbing with a cast of kooky one-percenters and moochers that includes a vapid British movie star (Gemma Arterton); a one-armed, one-eyed Namibian colonel (John Kani); and a Spanish Formula One driver (Luis Gerardo Méndez) whose grasp of English appears to be limited to answering reporters’ questions at press conferences. It turns out that Quince, a world-class curmudgeon, has invited them all with the sole purpose of telling them off before he signs a new will, leaving his entire fortune to Suzi and cutting Charles and the others out their inheritance. With no shortage of bad blood and possible motives among the guests, it’s no surprise that the old man is soon found dead with a ceremonial dagger sticking out of his chest.
Nick and Audrey know that they’ve stumbled into, well, a murder mystery. They know the clichés and they know the rules—including the one about how the most superfluous characters are the most likely culprits. Ironically, that makes the Spitzes the prime suspects in the eyes of the stereotypically French, chainsmoking Interpol officer (Dany Boon) who picks up the case when the yacht docks in Monte Carlo. The fact that Nick has been lying to Audrey about a promotion (and their ability to afford this belated honeymoon) because he’s too embarrassed to admit that he’s failed the detective exam doesn’t exactly help their credibility.
It might be the definition of faint praise to note that Murder Mystery boasts one of the tightest scripts of any movie produced under the Happy Madison banner; it was penned by James Vanderbilt, who once upon a time wrote Zodiac, one of the great modern movies about our fascination with mysteries. But the mystery itself is rote and, despite its jokey foreshadowing and its constant winks to the audience, never smart enough to really work as a genre parody. Instead, the movie just breezes along on the strength of Aniston and Sandler’s easygoing rapport; it’s quieter, less crude, and less misanthropic than the average middle-aged Sandler comedy, with nary an obnoxious Nick Swardson or Rob Schneider supporting role in sight.
In fact, director Kyle Newacheck (Comedy Central’s Workaholics) seems to be so focused on keeping the movie light on its feet that he never bothers to generate a sense of danger, even as the Spitzes’ fellow guests keep turning up dead. Compared to something like the David Fincher-spoofing Game Night, which got some of its biggest and squirmiest laughs by playing suspense and violence against the obliviousness of its central married couple, it feels a waste of potential. Murder Mystery may feature a couple of shootouts and even a climactic car chase, but Nick and Audrey never seem more than mildly inconvenienced. The result is only mildly amusing.