Let’s talk about Adam Sandler. Since his historic production deal with Netflix, which saw him star in a series of exclusive pictures for the global streamer, his profile seems somewhat dimished. We never see his face on movie posters at the cinema, nor sit through trailers for his films. 20 years ago his face lined the shelves of video libraries’ new release sections on a year-round basis. Now largely restricted to Netflix, it often feels as if the popular comedic actor has vanished. Of course his fans still know he is out there, having spent an estimated two billion hours watching him work on the service. His global profile might seem modest in recent years, but he is arguably more successful than ever.
Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck and released on Netflix in 2019, is one example of his more recent work. It stars Sandler and Jennifer Aniston as Nick and Audrey Spitz, a middle-aged American couple whose long-delayed honeymoon to Europe sees them ingratiated with an English billionaire (Luke Evans), accused of murdering his even richer father (Terence Stamp), and pushed on the run by the authorities while trying to solve the murders by themselves.
In his earlier years Sandler essentially played two different characters. One was the ‘amusing idiot’ of Billy Madison, The Waterboy, and Little Nicky. The other was the ‘hilarious angry man’ of Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, and Anger Management (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is a superb and very peculiar diversion for this character type, demonstrating what a nightmare Sandler’s characters would be if not played for laughs). More recently he has made a broad shift towards a character type potentially described as ‘amiable schlub’. This third persona appears to have settled into much of Sandler’s work over the past 20 years, starting with 2002’s Mr Deeds and continuing onwards – a laid-back guy, heavily defined by his job (pizzeria owner in Mr Deeds, architect in 2006’s Click, police officer here in Murder Mystery), and married to or dating a beautiful woman (Winona Ryder, Kate Beckinsale, and Jennifer Aniston, in those three named moviers).
His comedy work is less sharp in this persona, which has made much of his recent work at the very least unmemorable, but here it is compensated for by a particularly strong supporting cast and a willingness to spread the humour around the other actors. Earlier female co-stars have been left in the ‘sympathetic but exasperated girlfriend’ role, tut-tutting throughout the film at Sandler’s irascible or childish antics. Here Jennifer Aniston, a talented comic performer in her own right, gets a pleasing share of both the plot and the laughs. Other elements of humour are also delegated to Luke Evans as suspicious billionaire Charles Cavendish, Gemma Arterton as actress Grace Ballard, Terence Stamp as elderly murder victim Malcolm Quince, and Danny Boon as Frence police detective De La Croix.
There is an overall sense here of an Agatha Christie pastiche, mixed with a variety of standard comic misunderstandings, pratfalls, and farce. Is it particularly great? Not really, but at the same time neither is it actively unenjoyable. One of the most fitting descriptions for the film is ‘pleasant’: the leads are likeable, and enough of the jokes are funny to keep the average viewer happy. In a world where people’s opinions seem to gravitate towards the extreme, there is something to be said for the simply average film.