There’s a fortune at loose and Adam Sandler is on the case — in fiction and reality. A decade ago, “Murder Mystery,” a caffeinated comedy that stars Sandler and Jennifer Aniston as working class New Yorkers whose European vacation gets handcuffed to a $70 billion corpse, would have raked in a respectable haul at the box office. (The duo’s 2011 romp “Just Go With It” earned $215 million worldwide.) Today, the A-listers are cavorting on Netflix in a film that feels like a postcard from a past era. Turns out the small screen frames their caper flick just fine.
The multiplex may be in peril, but at least it’s faring better than tycoon Malcolm Quince (an imperious Terence Stamp) who saunters into the ballroom of his yacht to announce that he’s disinheriting all of his guests, and is promptly stabbed to death. The suspects could have all rolled in from a game of Clue. There’s the actress (Gemma Arterton), the Colonel (John Kani), the racecar driver (Luis Gerardo Méndez), the Maharajah (Adeel Akhtar), plus the dead man’s rotting family tree, which includes an unloved son (David Walliams), a raconteur viscount (Luke Evans), and Malcolm’s 23-year-old ski instructor bride (Shioli Kutsuna), who wears her gold-digging status as brazenly as her body-hugging dresses.
However, the local French inspector (Dany Boon, France’s top comedy star — and a kind of Gallic Adam Sandler) pins the assassination on Sandler and Aniston’s Nick and Audrey Spitz, a cop and a hairdresser on their first overseas vacation, for no rationale but to kick the plot into gear. “Are you saying that your theory is that the two of us conned our way onto a stranger’s boat at the last minute to commit premeditated murder that benefits us in no way?” asks Audrey, a mystery novel obsessive. Si, the gendarme is implying exactly that. Perhaps the most daring thing in James Vanderbilt’s script is the insinuation that the French police are as impulsive as, say, the Italians who convicted Amanda Knox. Once the Spitzes are j’accuse’d, what follows is strictly by the book: a manhunt, more murders, and a climatic Ferrari crash-up set to AC/DC. A better twist would be an action-comedy that could just bypass the tacked-on car chase.
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Director Kyle Newacheck’s bright and simple film is gambling on his leads’ star power. Meanwhile his ensemble cast competes over who can appear most guilty. Former Bond girl Arterton is a delightful bodice-heaving vamp while the mustachioed Evans has been honing his egotistical Euro-villains since the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. Evans has gotten so good at playing mannered crooks that whenever he appears onscreen, there’s a Smell-O-Vision waft of cologne and vermouth.
Of course, every Adam Sandler comedy abides by a trope as hoary as “the butler did it.” At some point in the shenanigans, Sandler’s schlub has gotta get a chance to prove he’s the bravest boy in the world. As Sandler’s career has congealed, so have his characters. Nick Spitz buys Audrey a $50 gift card for their 10-year anniversary and wears cargo shorts to a black-tie dinner. Their marriage needs a jolt of excitement, something more appealing than the seething sad-sack condescension that roils under a Sandler role.
Yet, what’s most out-of-whack in this onscreen relationship is that Aniston is giving a genuine performance. Her bored wife is idealistic, naive and awkward, the kind of aspirant who dresses up for a cross-Atlantic flight but balks at paying $9 for ear plugs. She’s overjoyed to drink spritzes with a viscount, and the audience swoons for her, even though her first encounter with Evans is the peak of the film’s erotic thrills. “Murder Mystery” feels as shamelessly gaudy as paste jewelry — a trinket for nights that aspire to nothing more exotic than a pizza — but Aniston sparkles like the real deal.