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Adam Sandler’s monstrous eight-movie deal with Netflix arrived as both a blessing and a curse for those who had actually endured any of his last eight self-produced theatrical releases. While it allowed most of us to simply pretend he had stopped working (points for anyone who’s even aware of what Sandy Wexler is), it also allowed him to continue making the same films that even his most impassioned fans had stopped buying tickets for. His streaming output has been predictably, punishingly unfunny up until now, and one would safely expect the same from his latest, which reunites him with Jennifer Aniston, who starred with him in 2011’s execrable romcom Just Go With It.
But while that film couldn’t capitalise on its big star pairing, their second attempt, the crudely titled Murder Mystery, is a far more satisfying experience, a surprisingly nimble summer comedy that finds both Aniston and Sandler at their most charming. They star as a married couple living a rather staid life in New York: he’s Nick, a cop pretending he’s a detective while she’s Audrey, his unaware hairdresser wife who pines for more romance. He owes her a European honeymoon and on their 15th anniversary, he finally caves and the pair head abroad for a much-needed getaway. But after Audrey befriends a suave playboy (Luke Evans), they find themselves invited to a luxurious yacht party hosted by a billionaire (Terence Stamp) who soon turns up dead, leaving the couple as prime suspects.
Originally slated to star Charlize Theron with Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden at the helm, Murder Mystery might now be arriving in a far less glamorous package, ushered in by the director of Game Over, Man!, but there’s a propulsive watchability that still makes it glide. It starts on rocky ground with characters defining themselves in clumsily broad strokes and the script relying on sitcom-level gender stereotypes (in one scene a group of women complain about their husbands not doing the dishes enough) but once the couple’s in the air, things smooth out considerably. The script, from the Zodiac and White House Down screenwriter James Vanderbilt, is zippy and relatively smart, playing like a fast-paced mix of Game Night and Manhattan Murder Mystery. Aniston’s character is obsessed with trashy mystery novels with titles such as RSVP Murder and brings a self-awareness to the Clue-style drama that unfolds around them. Both she and Sandler are comfortably in their wheelhouses but while this has led them both to coast on autopilot in the past, here they’re able to confidently lean into their movie star charm.
Nothing here is a great stretch for either, but that’s sort of the appeal and it’s a pleasure to watch two stars aware of what an audience wants from them without taking this knowledge for granted. They’re playing up to their quintessential types but in a way that never feels phoned in, and there’s a lived-in married couple chemistry that makes their bickering believably spiky. Unlike in previous Sandler comedies, the dialogue is mostly tight and free of showboating opportunities and it’s also less puerile than what we’re used to seeing from him, bar one ongoing dick joke. He’s easily the best we have seen him in years, outside of his impressive indie work with Noah Baumbach and Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s also especially gratifying to see Aniston in arguably her first successful comic role since 2013’s We’re the Millers, the years in between littered with unfunny dross.
The last decade has seen a significant uptick in action comedies, the combination seeming like a canny way to expand the audience for both individual genres, but it’s a difficult hybrid to pull off. Too often the action feels phoney or the comedy too broad but to Vanderbilt’s credit, he mostly succeeds. The mystery element of the plot is hokey but knowingly so, and the script plays into our familiarity with the whodunnit structure through Aniston’s feverish excitement at recognising cliche. What’s missing is a more visual film-maker at the helm, the film looking a little pedestrian at times, especially compared with, say, Game Night, which saw directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein add a visually distinctive aesthetic to a similarish setup.
It has been another underwhelming year for studio comedies and even though it won’t be competing on the big screen, Murder Mystery is a satisfying standout, albeit one that exists in a field with a very low bar. Sandler might not be forgiven just yet but this shows there’s proof he can do better – he’d just be wise to keep Aniston around for the next three as well.
Source: The Guardian
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