Film & TV

Murder Mystery: An Old Comedy Genre Gets Polished Up

Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler in Netflix’s Murder Mystery (Scott Yamano/Netflix)
Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston make a fine Nick and Nora Charles.

I  like Adam Sandler, and yet you may share the sense of trepidation I get when I see that another of his movies is out. He made some very funny manboy comedies (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy) followed by some not-so-funny manboy comedies, and when he went dark, in Reign over Me and Funny People, nobody followed. As with Frank Sinatra, he built a manic-depressive career, and like Sinatra (who used to tell the director of the original Ocean’s 11 when it was time to wrap things up so the boys could go ring-a-dinging), he doesn’t necessarily take cinema as seriously as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson. Sandler likes to situate movie shoots in exotic locales (Hawaii for Just Go with It, South Africa for Blended) because he likes to take vacations while he’s filming. His new movie was shot in places like Lake Como.

And it’s pretty good! In Murder Mystery, Sandler does the unexpected and plays a character who’s neither Kurt Cobain nor Jerry Lewis but just an ordinary working stiff with a slightly disappointed but basically loving wife. Thanks to a deft, funny script by James Vanderbilt and brisk direction by Kyle Newacheck, this throwback comedy turns out to be an easygoing charmer. Released without fanfare on Netflix on June 14, it was watched by more than 13 million Americans within a few days, making it the highest-rated program of the week if you don’t count the NBA finals.

Murder Mystery takes us back to the days when Nick and Nora Charles were martini-sipping crime-solvers in the six-film Thin Man series, updating the formula with a superb twist: This time the couple are working-class types who get pulled into a world of international playboys and billionaires’ yachts. Sandler’s Nick is a frustrated NYPD cop (he tells everyone he’s a detective, but he keeps flunking the exam) and Aniston is Audrey, his hairdresser wife of 15 years. He promised her a trip to Europe one day, but the money to pay for it has never come. He’s the kind of guy who buys her the wrong allergy medicine at the drugstore to save 50 cents. When he finally does decide to max out the credit card to get her that transatlantic vacation, Audrey sneaks into first class, where she meets a charming bon vivant (Luke Evans) who likes her enough to invite the pair of them to hang out on his yacht. She’s Jennifer Aniston, so this is plausible enough.

Intrigue follows: Soon we’re in a classic Agatha Christie–style, lushly appointed club room populated with glamorous and highly dodgy characters such as a maharishi who talks like Ali G (Adeel Akhtar), a snooty actress (Gemma Arterton), a gay heir (David Walliams), an African colonel (John Kani), a Spanish race-car driver (Luis Gerardo Mendez), a Japanese gold-digger (Shioli Kutsuna), and an imperious billionaire (a priceless Terence Stamp, who was less frightening when he played General Zod). The lights get switched off, someone gets a large knife to the chest, and everyone thinks it’s the Americans who did it.

I’d forgotten how great Aniston is at slinging cutting remarks without coming across as mean, and she and Sandler play beautifully off each other as they bicker their way toward a solution. The movie has the bones of a standard whodunit but also lightly mocks genre conventions along the way (“the butler did it” is an actual line). Subsidiary mysteries crop up: Did the killer also eat Audrey’s peanut M&M’s? (No, Nick confesses to that crime: He wanted to see if the European ones taste the same.) The pair turn out to be evenly matched because, although he is a cop, he’s not a very good one, and although she is a hairdresser, she has read a lot of mystery novels. No matter how dangerous things get, they handle it all with nonchalance: There’s a lot of comic mileage in playful, unpretentious Americans having a laugh at huffy European aristocrats. Anyway, to them, even being suspected of murder beats the original plan for their vacation, which was to go on one of those package-tour bus trips with dozens of sweaty tourists. The bus itself gets worked into the plot hilariously.

The comedy murder-mystery was once a reliable movie genre but it was written off for dead so long ago that I’m not even sure when I last saw it attempted. Can it be as far back as 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton? As with most Hollywood formulas, there was nothing wrong with the structure of the thing, it just needed to be polished up a little in order to get it back in fine working order.

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