Entertainment

Adam Sandler's Netflix Comedy 'Murder Mystery' Is a Breezy, Goofy Vacation Whodunit

murder mystery
Scott Yamano/Netflix

There's a throwaway joke that occurs early on in Murder Mystery, the latest breezy vacation-comedy from Adam Sandler, that serves as a litmus test of whether or not you'll enjoy the movie. Sandler's character Nick Spitz, a schlubby New York City cop with a bad back and a Magnum P.I. mustache, is having a conversation with his wife Audrey, a paperback-mystery-novel-devouring hairdresser played by Jennifer Aniston, and Charles Cavendish, a mischievous wealthy playboy played by Luke Evans. The three are standing in an otherwise empty first-class bar on a plane to Europe, one of those sets with the vacant, sitcom-y look you've come to expect from Sandler's recent run of Happy Madison-produced Netflix movies.

Charming and intimidating, Cavendish has invited the couple on a private yacht trip with his family, promising adventure, wine, and meals prepared by a private chef named Maurice. "Some people call me Maurice," replies Sandler in a listless deadpan. Then he does a surprisingly accurate imitation of the little wolf whistle slide guitar effect from Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," the classic-rock radio staple. That's it -- that's the whole joke.

If you laugh at it, which I admit I did, you will probably enjoy the rest of Murder Mystery, an easygoing whodunit that joins last year's wedding comedy The Week Of in the "better than you'd expect" late-period Sandler pantheon. (2016's exhausting The Do-Over, which featured David Spade and a ludicrous plot about pharmaceuticals, remains the low-point of Sandler's Netflix era.) When it comes to serving up dad-jokes, the now 52-year-old former SNL star still has expert timing and a disarming sweetness, which he displayed in this year's warmly received stand-up special 100% Fresh. If he's not screaming or doing a weird baby voice, the man can be genuinely hilarious.

Luckily, Murder Mystery has a little more going for it than references to '70s rock songs. The script, which was penned by Zodiac and White House Down screenwriter James Vanderbilt, has a slightly more appealing high-concept set-up and a more intricate plot than many of the shaggy, poorly put-together Happy Madison productions. Married for 15 years, Nick and Audrey are presented as a fundamentally loving but economically pinched couple that struggles to find time for themselves. (Nick's idea of a thoughtful anniversary present is an Amazon gift card.) At the opening, Nick finds out he's once again failed the detective's exam -- he says he knows all the answers but he just freezes up under pressure -- and he lies about his test results to his wife, which snowballs into another lie that leads to him springing for a cheap European bus tour, a long-delayed honeymoon vacation promise. 

But once the rakish Cavendish appears, all their plans change. The suave mystery man brings the Spitzes on his family's boat, where we're introduced to a series of Clue-like caricatures, including a famous actress (Gemma Arterton), an eye-patch-wearing Colonel (John Kani), a beard-sporting bodyguard (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), and a non-English-speaking Formula One driver (Luis Gerardo Mendez). Everyone has assembled for a celebration of Cavendish's billionaire uncle Malcolm Quince (Terrance Stamp), who will soon be marrying Cavendish's former fiancée, Suzi (Shioli Kutsuna). It sounds unwieldy, but all the introductions and story mechanics are handled in a refreshingly sprite manner, with Aniston and Sandler often commenting on the absurdity of the scenario.

Inevitably, a murder on the high seas occurs: Quince tells off his friends and family, pledging to leave them nothing in his will and instead giving away his funds to Suzi, but before he can sign the contract that solidifies this arrangement, the lights flip off, a gunshot rings out, and the billionaire is found with a giant knife in his chest. From there, Sandler's Nick reluctantly attempts to take control of the situation and Aniston's Audrey, excited by the prospect of solving a real-life whodunit, begins theorizing about who the culprit might be. Could it be Quince's son Tobias (David Walliams) who might want all the inheritance for himself? Perhaps Cavendish did it? Or maybe the Spitzes aren't as innocent as they look?

murder mystery
Scott Yamano/Netflix

Given the low standards Sandler has set for himself in these comedies over the last decade, Murder Mystery doesn't have a very high bar to clear. There are still lazy gags, broad cultural stereotypes, and some "marriage is hell" humor straight out of The Lockhorns comic strip. At the same time, Aniston and Sandler, who first teamed up for 2011's forgettable romantic comedy Just Go With It, have developed a comedic rhythm with each other that's surprisingly endearing. They argue and bicker, but they also enjoy each other's company, pushing each other to solve the case and talking through possible motives. Their interactions with a smoke-ring-blowing French Inspector (Dany Boon) brought in to interview all the suspects are especially fun and silly.

As the tension builds, director Kyle Newacheck, who co-created Workaholics and directed many episodes of the long-running Comedy Central series, stages some mildly diverting action scenes, including an unnecessarily long car chase and a ho-hum showdown in a library. It's not poorly done, but it's also not what you watch this movie for. The elaborate scene where Sandler and Aniston piece together a theory that explains the convoluted murder, clearly riffing on the many versions of Agatha Christie stories told over the years, is more effective. The stakes are incredibly low, but that's a comedic zone where Sandler likes to operate these days. Occasionally, like in the case of Murder Mystery, he's a joker worth hanging out with for 90 minutes.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.