With an estimated budget of $15 billion in 2019, Netflix will green light any project with sound, shapes, and colors.
But Adam Sandler's deal with Netflix testifies to the genius behind Netflix's approach to content: burnouts sell. The sixth and latest Netflix spectacle from Sandler's Happy Madison productions, Murder Mystery, is a streamable trainwreck. The comedy strays from Sandler's signature slapstick and potty humor and banks on the 52-year-old's only other comedic persona as a working-class schlub (who better to play an average down-and-out American than a comedian worth $420 million). The film makes use of every murder mystery trope (down to a cartoonish image of the stars riding the Orient Express), but its attempts at satire and homage are too half-hearted to constitute meta-commentary or nostalgia.
Murder Mystery | Trailer | Netflix youtu.be
Jennifer Aniston costars with Sandler in the pair's second attempt at playing love interests despite their lackluster chemistry. Nick and Audrey Spitz are a tepid New York City couple approaching their 15th wedding anniversary. Nick is a weathered cop who's just failed the detective exam for the third time, and Audrey is a chatty hairdresser obsessed with true crime novels. Being the milquetoast husband that he is, Nick lies that he's being promoted to detective and he's using his new salary to take his wife to Europe like he's always promised. When the couple meets wealthy playboy Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) on their flight, Audrey describes him as "the bad guy" straight out of her murder mystery novels, because every Adam Sandler movie is an idiot's guide to subtext.
The film, like most of Sandler's features, is structured like a stream of standup bits, with Nick Spitz's brilliant callbacks being "I'm hungry as sh*t" or "I'm tired as sh*t." Aubrey's recurring bit is being in constant need of Claritin for her allergies, which at least ends up serving some purpose in the formulaic plot. The dashing Cavendish improbably invites the couple to cruise the Mediterranean on his billionaire uncle's private yacht, where everyone on board witnesses the patriarch's murder. Did the butler do it? Who cares? Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt clearly phoned in the script, and director Kyle Newacheck (Workaholics) got to take the cast and crew around the world on a working vacation. Filming locations included Milan, Lake Como, and Santa Margherita Ligure.
A film like Murder Mystery would be far more forgivable, perhaps even a passable campy romp, if we hadn't seen Aniston and Sandler at their best in 2002. After Aniston's critically acclaimed performance as a depressed housewife in The Good Girl and Sandler's rare display of nuanced layers in Punch Drunk Love, it hurts to see Aniston running from a weird masked assailant with a blow dart gun in perpetually pressed sundresses and wedge sandals while Sandler takes his gifted comedic timing for granted with bored deliveries.
But why should Sandler try? After his 2015 deal with Netflix, he's guaranteed a steady audience, no matter what he phones in. According to Netflix's numbers, between 2015 and 2017 users streamed a total of 500 million hours of Sandler's films. Reporter Ben Fritz debunked the method to Netflix's madness in The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies: "The mid-budget star vehicle, in other words, still worked great for Netflix. When people went to theaters, they preferred brand-name franchises. But when they were browsing for something to stream rather than pay fifty dollars for a night out, a familiar face doing the familiar shtick was perfect."
"They get their money whether you loved the movie or hated it," Fritz adds. Murder Mystery is exactly the kind of film you half commit to streaming in the background. Every so often you'll catch a one-liner that makes you giggle or glimpse Adam Sandler falling down, and you'll remember a simpler time when fart jokes and man-child garble was hilarious, and you'll let it play.