Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels fans are no strangers to albatross contracts for aging stars who lost their step and their swing years ago. But such nine-figure nonsense is hardly the exclusive domain of Major League Baseball. Look at Adam Sandler, who’s now 75% done with a ludicrously lucrative Netflix deal — in which he allegedly earned $250 million from an initial four-film contract with the streaming service in 2014, followed by a four-film extension in 2017.
It’s not funny to have watched Alfonso Soriano or Albert Pujols dwindle into exceedingly expensive twilights. Neither is watching Sandler sleepwalk his way through so much slothful shtick. Most of his efforts anymore feel like dares that got out of hand. So perhaps it’s in that spirit that Murder Mystery — which hits the platform Friday — feels like a test to see if he and Jennifer Aniston could make something with a title even worse than Just Go With It. (Why not embrace ultimate capitulation to Netflix’s almighty algorithm and rebrand Sandler’s other Netflix films as Western Spoof, Goofy Voice, Action Whatever, Sentimental Wedding Thing and Legitimately Great Movie Buried Under Liechtensteinian Cooking Shows?)
To be fair, there is a murder and a mystery, even if the latter constitutes just how long you can endure a film where the paltry laughs never rise above a modest sniff. Indeed, the funniest thing here is Charlize Theron’s executive-producer credit. Seems she held onto that after successfully escaping any previous agreement to actually appear in the film, apparently stuck in development hell since 2012. Emily Blunt and Colin Firth are among other actors at one time announced as co-stars before clearly phoning their agents to say “I said ‘NO!,’ not ‘GO!’ ”
Instead we get Sandler and Aniston as Nick and Audrey Spitz, of whose last name it must have taken all of Sandler’s willpower to avoid a “swallows” joke; Murder Mystery certainly tips on Sandler’s PG-13 side. Nick is a New York police officer — complete with a modestly amusing cop stache that feels like Sandler’s downmarket tribute to pal Robert Smigel — who has failed his detective exam again. Audrey is a hairstylist who immerses herself in dime-store murder mysteries to forget the European honeymoon Nick promised long ago but never delivered; they only vacation whenever someone in the family dies.
Panicked about placating Audrey on their 15th anniversary, Nick pretends a long-delayed European getaway is his surprise gift and that the promotion he didn’t get will pay for it. On the plane — where Sandler’s real-life wife, Jackie, plays a character known only as Great Looking Flight Attendant — Audrey meets Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans), a viscount whom she says sounds like a character right out of one of her novels. “And what character would I be?” Charles asks. “With a name like that,” she says, “you’d have to be the bad guy.”
Not even the laziest Sandler flick would tip its hand so early, so Murder Mystery clunkily introduces umpteen more bad guys (and gals) to choose from as the eventual killer of billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp). Cavendish, who is Quince’s nephew, invites the Spitzes to join him on Quince’s yacht in celebration of Quince’s recent nuptials. It’s not long before Quince denounces Cavendish — and all those other friends and family members — as leeches to his fortune. The lights go out, there’s an audible scuffle, and Quince is found with a dagger in his chest. Believed to be a detective, Nick tries to run point on a case so convoluted only Audrey can help him solve it — if they can survive the killer themselves.
Sandler seems briefly invigorated by playing a schlub forced to face spousal falsities under fraught circumstances. But he’s ultimately too tired and bored to do anything but squander that twitchy potential, generally burying his eyes under sunglasses half the time and limply cracking jokes about the similarities of allergy medications, cigars as phallic symbols and whether a one-eyed, one-handed Namibian military colonel might also in fact be missing a penis. (Nick would’ve loved director Kyle Newacheck’s last Netflix film, Game Over, Man!, in which a character indeed loses his penis.)
Aniston is even more anonymous than usual. But if you squint during the closing credits — to read a font so small it feels like a union-mandated minimum to mediate the shame of those involved — you’ll see Aniston had a half-dozen hairstylists on hand for shoots in Monaco, Italy and Spain. Indeed, no one seems to give a hoot about anything beyond a jetsetting holiday on Netflix’s dime. And between this and Men in Black: International, it’s a big week for gutbusters about how those wacky folks overseas put steering wheels on the other side of the car.
Unlike its trainwreck theatrical kin, Murder Mystery musters a good action sequence to follow that dead-horse punchline. Albeit to a significantly lesser degree than last year’s underrated The Spy Who Dumped Me, second-unit director Gary Powell (a veteran of Daniel Craig’s Bond films) lends exceptionally clean lines to a Ferrari car chase set to AC/DCs “Shoot to Thrill.” There have certainly been worse loud scenes to roust you from Sandler-comedy catatonia.
After a decade-plus where disparaging Sandler has been de rigueur, it may seem pointless to pan such relatively painless piffle as Murder Mystery; after all, no comedian stays great forever. But when you see how effective Sandler can still be when he puts forth even a scintilla of skill — search Netflix for “Meyerowitz” and thank me later — well … that’s why these vending-machine movies (now complete with vending-machine titles) continue to rankle. Sometimes, you just get tired of watching guys lollygagging to first night in and night out. One day, this Netflix contract will be over. Maybe then he, and we, will be free.