In an unlikely turn, Adam Sandler’s charming, old-fashioned Murder Mystery is a rare gem
|National Post 26 Jun 2019 at 09:24|
In this latest instalment in the ongoing multi-picture deal he arranged with Netflix some years ago, Adam Sandler plays Nick Spitz, a somewhat ineffectual but basically well-meaning sergeant in the New York City Police Department who has failed the examination to become a detective three times. Out of embarrassment over his failures, he has been lying to his wife, Audrey, a plucky hair stylist played by Jennifer Aniston, telling her he’s a detective anyway.
On the eve of their 15th wedding anniversary, Audrey confronts Nick about his inability to follow through on the promise he made at the beginning of their relationship to take her on holiday to Europe, and Nick, having picked her up a novelty greeting card and a $50 Amazon gift certificate that afternoon, professes that he’s had this very vacation planned as an anniversary surprise, and whisks her the following day on a spontaneous trip to coastal Málaga.
In the airplane on the way to Spain, in a thrifty bid to procure complimentary earplugs from the first-class cabin, Audrey meets the debonair industrialist Charles Cavindish, whom she jokes has a name like the villain in an airport paperback — our first clue, besides the title, about the direction in which the film is bound and the playful tone it will strike when it gets there. Cavendish is played by Luke Evans, whose neat moustache and strong chin set exactly the right air of lofty charm and antique gravitas. Audrey and Nick are about to be admitted into an old-fashioned whodunnit in the classical English style, and even as the danger mounts, the body count increases and the stakes get higher and higher, the whole adventure has such a pleasingly quaint allure that they are not so much frightened as delighted — and it’s the same for us, too.
Luke Evans as Charles Cavendish, Sandler and Aniston. Netflix
The film is directed by Community and Parks and Recreation director Kyle Newacheck, from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, who wrote the superb thriller Zodiac. The central mystery, a traditional case of murder for money and revenge in which a range of dubious persons seem equally culpable, is essentially serious, built around an escalating series of discoveries and deaths of the kind Agatha Christie perfected in Ten Little Indians. Only instead of a Miss Marple or Monsieur Poirot, Sandler’s Nick finds himself in the reluctant role of a harried faux-detective. Surprisingly, the actor plays the unassuming sleuth mostly straight — sardonic but capable, not the expected putz. (When a French inspector, suspecting him of murder, says he will not rest until he proves him guilty, Sandler retorts, “I will rest, because I’m tired as s–t, but then I won’t rest until I prove myself innocent.”) While a comedy, this isn’t parody or farce. It’s closer in spirit to the frothy urbane capers of the 1930s, such as The Lady Vanishes or The Thin Man.
Many of the movie’s best jokes have to do with distinctions of class. The Spitzes are lower middle-class, barely able to afford even economy fares to Europe or their sightseeing tour by coach of ham-curing across the Spanish countryside. (“All those times we’re eating ham sandwiches and you ask how do they age the ham,” Sandler enthuses to his wife to hype up the trip. “You’ll never have to ask that again!”) Their escapades are not simply a romp through the conventions of fusty genre fiction, but also a jaunt through the splendour of life among the super-rich, whose yachts, tuxedos and hors d’oeuvres our heroes indulge in with the giddy satisfaction of wild fantasy wish-fulfillment. It’s rare to see an American movie deal so openly with money, and Murder Mystery is witty in its gloss on the difference between living large and barely scraping by.
The blithe, colourful whodunnit begins in earnest at sea, in the parlour of a luxurious ship, under circumstances — lights off, shots fired, ceremonial blade found plunged into the chest of an aging billionaire patriarch — prime for a brilliant detective’s shrewd deductive reasoning. Soon, the classic locked-room mystery moves off-ship, first to Monte Carlo (where one of the suspects will race in the Grand Prix, naturally), then to Genoa and Milan, touring the estates and landmarks typical of a globetrotting affair. The wily French inspector, meanwhile, remains in dogged pursuit, as the suspicion initially cast on the American tourists soon firms to make them fugitives on the run; the dragnet closing, the Spitzes are obliged to solve the case to clear their names, all while dealing with their long-brewing marital issues. Sandler and Aniston have something better than chemistry — the easy, weary intimacy of people married 15 years.
Murder Mystery is appealingly unfashionable. It’s the kind of movie that feels obsolete, or seems at least to have vanished: A mid-budget comedy-drama with movie stars that isn’t based on any other intellectual property, that has no interlocking universe of tenuously connected titles, that doesn’t reboot anything, whose beats and punchlines were written rather than improvised, and appears to have been made with some degree of care.
Ironic, then, that it has been widely lambasted. Critics, wearied to exhaustion by the weekly deluge of new releases, need Sandler. If nothing else as an opportunity to scapegoat and dog-pile — what he does can be dismissed out of hand, without bothering to engage with it.
But if this charming, funny, likeable old-fashioned film can’t be appreciated for its unmistakable merits, then this sort of thing might really be doomed to disappear. And the death of the style would be a rather more harrowing mystery.
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