Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big-budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join Ben Sears and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley. (If and as Happy Madison Productions releases new films, as they have in this instance, Ben will return to the Happy Valley.)
A few funny things happened in the months since the last entry in this series: Adam Sandler perhaps came the closest he’s ever been to scoring a coveted Oscar nomination for his performance in Hustle. (He should have broken through in this reviewer’s opinion!) More recently though, Sandler was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an award that has gone to some of the funniest figures of the 20th and 21st centuries (and also Bill Cosby and Dave Chappelle). Has the broader cultural perception of Sandler finally shifted away from “lazy cash-hungry actor”? It’s been nearly three full years since we’ve seen him in comedic mode and four years since the original Murder Mystery.
Unfortunately for the Murder Mystery franchise, and between the releases of its two films, Rian Johnson released not one but two jolts to the arm of the whodunit genre with the Knives Out films — the most recent of which will surely be a Netflix recommendation when you’re done with Murder Mystery 2. Of course, comparing the two franchises would be a fool’s errand, but I was struck by their similarities while watching. Both are concerned with a murder and a large, colorful ensemble, any number of which could be the culprit. And as with Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, it’s clear that Sandler and Jennifer Aniston relish their time together and the roles they get to play.
I’m sure I’m alone here and that the culture at large has a photographic memory of the events of 2019’s Murder Mystery, but I’m grateful that director Jeremy Garelick decided to include the rare “previously on” montage at the sequel’s onset. Four years after their first misadventure, Nick (Sandler) and Audrey Spitz (Aniston) are full-time detectives, though they’re far from experts in the field; one shot incredulously shows the couple riding on the Orient Express. Because the original film coasted on its international setting, Murder Mystery 2 quickly jets off to a tropical island for the wedding of the Maharajah (Adeel Akhtar) and Claudette (Mélanie Laurent). But before the hot couple can get hitched, the Maharajah gets kidnapped and the setting shifts to Paris.
Much of the film relies on the back and forth between Sandler and Aniston, and both mostly escape the film unscathed. This being a Happy Madison production, it should come as no surprise that, at best, 50% of the jokes actually land, but Sandler finds plenty of room to riff on the situational humor. The supporting cast this time around is populated with capable performers like Laurent, Mark Strong and Jodie Turner-Smith, but by and large, they’re relegated to background players or exposition dumpers. Primarily a producer and TV director, Garelick actually manages to make the action sequences pop, especially a van chase that deploys a few visually interesting camera tricks.
The story never really tries to break new ground or find anything interesting to say about its central characters. But if you came to Murder Mystery 2 expecting a fresh reinvention of the comedy mystery, you probably didn’t see the first film. Though given that the script was written by the same James Vanderbilt that wrote Zodiac (!) and the two most recent films in the Scream franchise, maybe you’d be forgiven for getting your hopes up just a smidge. Maybe.
Murder Mystery 2 now joins Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Grown Ups, and Deuce Bigalow as the rare Happy Madison property to receive the sequel treatment. What is it, besides the exotic locales, that warrants a follow-up film? Of course, the murder-mystery genre is inherently adaptable, and Aniston seems game to tag along with Sandler around the world whenever he calls. Don’t be surprised when a third entry in the series is announced in the next few months or years.
Despite the overall blandness of Murder Mystery 2, I didn’t find myself dreading the experience of watching it. It has certainly helped my outlook on Happy Madison — not to mention my overall mental health — to give the production company some breathing room. Whereas I had been essentially binging all of the films for the better part of a year, I’ve only had to subject myself to two over the past calendar year. The good news is that Sandler doesn’t seem to be phoning it in as he was in the worst days of this project. Indeed, no members of the Sandler immediate family are listed among the principal cast. But how much of my reaction is colored by knowing I’ll have months before I’m required to watch another HM film and, by extension, the knowledge that more high-level Sandler films are on the horizon?
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: I have to imagine Jillian Bell either owed Sandler a favor or was coincidentally in town while shooting because there is no logical explanation for her presence in this film. However, you should not mistake this for criticism because, like every project she’s in, Bell elevates the material immediately upon entering.
- Just Go With It — The Happy Madison Promise: Why have Sandler and Aniston show up to the Eiffel Tower as if they just raided the nearest designer boutique? Maybe they just had a few extra bucks left in the costume budget.
- Fart Joke Counter: Just like the previous film, there are no farts to be found within the Murder Mystery franchise.
- NEXT TIME: Get ready (potentially) for a load of content this year and a load more Sandler! No release dates have been announced as of this writing, but the Happy Madison docket includes The Out-Laws (starring Adam Devine), You Are So Not Invited to My Bat-Mitzvah and Spaceman (both starring Sandler) and Leo (the first animated Happy Madison film since Eight Crazy Nights). Whichever one is next will be the 50th (!!!) entry!