It was just starting to look like Adam Sandler got his groove back. His performance in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” was among the best of his career, his PTA-approved comedy special “Adam Sandler 100% Fresh” was a rapid-fire reminder of what people loved about him in the first place, and — judging by paparazzi shots from the set — his performance as a Diamond district jeweler in the Safdie brothers’ forthcoming “Uncut Gems” could redefine screen acting as we know it. Sandler’s talent and creative potential have never been in doubt, but at long last it finally seemed like he was putting them to use on a more regular basis.
And maybe he is. Maybe the terrible Netflix movies Sandler churns out to satisfy the streaming platform’s deal with his Happy Madison production company are all part of a long (and ultra-lucrative) con to make people drop to their knees in gratitude whenever he decides to work with a real filmmaker instead of just churning out gristle for the content mill. Maybe that sinister plan is working far better than it should. After all, this critic has already made peace with the idea that Sandler doesn’t give a shit about most of the stuff he stars in — no matter how many paid vacations he forces us to watch, his admirers will always be hovering over the plate for a crack at his next curveball. That’s the problem.
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“Murder Mystery” is the kind of lazy and uninspired trash that can only be made by someone who knows that it doesn’t matter; bad movies are made all the time, but precious few pieces of content are so content to breathe in their own foul stink. There’s a strange and unusual calm about the awfulness of this film, which glazes over your eyeballs like an Agatha Christie novel that’s been adapted into some kind of illustrated elevator muzak. There’s a serenity to how little anyone seems to care about its zero-dimensional characters, the sitcom-worthy jokes they make, or literally anything else.
In a way, the lack of effort is almost beautiful. We live in anxious times, when everything seems like the end of the world, and it can be weirdly pacifying to watch a film so flat that it can turn your living room into a sensory deprivation tank. “Murder Mystery” is the cinematic equivalent of being the only passenger who’s still awake on smooth red-eye flight in the middle of the night; it’s just you, your thoughts, and the gentle hum of a very expensive machine that’s doing irreversible harm to the environment outside your window. But shhhh you don’t have to worry about that unpleasantness right now — look, Jennifer Aniston is playing a blue-collar hairdresser whose face is permanently frozen into a disapproving scowl. Isn’t that fun?
The high-concept premise here is every bit as strained and sweaty as the ones that prop up “The Do-Over” and “Sandy Wexler,” but where those other Netflix obscenities flail around in a futile effort to save themselves, “Murder Mystery” settles into an apathetic groove as soon as its plot takes shape. Sandler plays Nick Spitz, a semi-conscious NYPD cop who just can’t seem to pass the detective’s exam. Stuck in a stale marriage and desperate not to disappoint his wife (Aniston) anymore than he usually does every day, Nick lies to her and tells her that he passed the test and got a promotion. It’s a costly mistake. After 15 years of promising Audrey that he’d take her on a trip to Europe, Nick is finally cornered into pulling the trigger and spending all the money he doesn’t have on a brief vacation from their miserable lives of donuts and dick jokes.
“Murder Mystery” was scripted by “Zodiac” screenwriter James Vanderbilt all the way back in 2012, but its bald contempt for the middle class couldn’t be more perfectly suited for Sandler’s “it must suck to be you people!” comic persona, which often caters to average schlubs by looking down at them from an altitude of 35,000 feet. When a dashing viscount named Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) invites the Spitzs to abandon their low-rent tour bus trip in favor of a week on his billionaire uncle’s super-yacht, our workaday American heroes get to pretend they’re living the high life for a little while. Benign as that fantasy may be, it’s starting to seem like Sandler is drawn to non-characters like Nick so that he can do the opposite; it would be uncomfortably cynical to assume that Sandler thinks these novocaine-like comedies are what common people want to watch, but the guy doesn’t leave us much choice.
Anyway, the Spitzs reach the Cavendish family yacht, where they’re introduced to a group of vaguely embarrassed actors who look like they’re cosplaying a massive game of “Clue.” Gemma Arterton is subjected to the role of a glamorous starlet who Nick recognizes from the hit film, “Sex Machina” (a detail worth mentioning just in case anyone still thought that Vanderbilt’s screenplay wasn’t re-written from the ground up), Adeel Akhtar drops by as an Ali G-inspired maharajah, John Kani is a gun-slinging African colonel of some kind, Shioli Kutsuna is Charles’ beautiful ex, and Terence Stamp cameos as the old billionaire who lured her away from his nephew. There are some other eccentric types aboard the boat, but who could possibly be bothered to remember them? Dying is the most interesting thing that any of them get to do, starting with Stamp’s Malcolm Quince, who’s stabbed in the heart during a sudden blackout mere seconds before signing away his fortune.
The good news is that Quince’s murder precipitates the only chuckle of the entire movie, as director Kyle Newacheck (a “Workaholics” alum) gets to have some juvenile fun at the expense of Stamp’s corpse. Newacheck, who displayed some semi-decent action chops in last year’s less sedate but similarly terrible “Game Over, Man!,” earns his paycheck once the Spitzs are fingered for the crime and forced to elude the authorities (and the real killer) across Western Europe.
If anything else in “Murder Mystery” had been conceived with even a sliver of the same intentionality that Newacheck brings to a third act car chase, maybe this movie wouldn’t feel like it never actually happened. Maybe we as a nation would be a few steps closer to understanding why Sandler and Aniston still think they have any sort of chemistry together. Maybe Nick Spitz’s character wouldn’t only be defined by his oft-repeated catchphrase: “I’m hungry as shit.” The comedic brilliance of that line is obviously self-evident, but by the third time you hear it, it starts getting harder to believe: Sandler has never seemed more satisfied with himself. At least these movies are making someone happy.
“Murder Mystery” is now streaming on Netflix.