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Murder Mystery 2 review: Adam Sandler’s Netflix comedies are slowly getting better

Murder Mystery 2 isn’t one of his best movies of all time, but it shows how far Happy Madison has come

Viewers tuning into Netflix on March 31 for Murder Mystery 2, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, can reasonably expect certain things, since the movie is one of Sandler’s many Happy Madison productions for the streaming service. Obviously, Sandler once again plays a just-plain-folks type who accidentally winds up in the lap of luxury. Of course the ensemble includes thinly drawn supporting characters who exist primarily so Sandler and his latest on-screen wife can take cheap shots at their transparently bad (or just odd) behavior. As usual, the plotting has a ramshackle quality, possibly imposed by Sandler and his Happy Madison staffers.

To these routines, Murder Mystery 2 adds further sequel-related certainties: Once again, Nick Spitz (Sandler) and his wife, Audrey (Aniston), bicker and solve a crime while on vacation. (Though if you assume the central crime will be an actual murder mystery, you have either not given Happy Madison enough credit, or given it far too much.) Anyone who saw 2019’s Murder Mystery will know what they’re getting into. The one surprise: At this point, the baseline for Sandler’s routine comedies has been moved up several notches.

Sandler’s relationship with Netflix didn’t start out this way. Hopes that he might use his long-term deal with the streamer to get out of his 2010s-era rut were dashed when his 2015 movie The Ridiculous 6, a longtime dream-project Western, was just as slipshod and crudely conceived as the likes of 2013’s big-studio release Grown Ups 2. His follow-up, the 2016 Netflix movie The Do-Over — a weirdly violent buddy comedy with David Spade — mostly felt like a listless exercise in both men really missing their late pal Chris Farley.

Image: Scott Yamano/Netflix

But a few years into his first Netflix pact, Sandler’s broad comedies started to show signs of genuine effort. 2018’s The Week Of is one of his best comedies ever, and 2022’s Hustle is a grounded sports dramedy with barely any shtick. Is he putting more thought into his day job, emboldened by his work for directors like Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) and the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems)? Or did he simply get as bored of making boilerplate Happy Madison movies as he looked on screen? Reasons aside, it seems like Sandler’s comedic instincts have been sharpened, and Murder Mystery 2 is convincing evidence — not because it’s one of his best projects, but because it isn’t, yet it still manages to be a pretty good time.

The movie starts with clear signs of postproduction tinkering. Out-of-nowhere voice-over fills the audience in on the central couple’s background from Murder Mystery: On a long-delayed vacation, retired cop Nick and hairdresser Audrey stumbled upon a Death on the Nile-style murder on a yacht, and though they were initially suspected of committing that murder, they wound up cracking the case instead. This catch-up is cut together with bits and pieces explaining what happened next. Since their first European adventure, Nick and Audrey have opened their own private detective agency, and business is not going well, as illustrated by scraps of a sequence where they investigate a husband’s infidelity and find out he was just planning a surprise party for his wife.

This opening feels like director Jeremy Garelick is hastily salvaging at least 10 minutes’ worth of cut footage from the previous movie, largely because it includes some sellable Sandler/Aniston antics and a familiar face. (Annie Mumolo from Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, playing the not-actually-spurned wife.) Yet even this clumsy attempt to get to the point shows some care; plenty of Sandler’s comedies have been allowed to laze toward the two-hour mark, while someone had the good sense to make sure that Murder Mystery 2 runs a cool 90 minutes.

Soon enough, Nick and Audrey are attending the lavish wedding of the maharajah (Adeel Akhtar) they met in the previous film. And soon enough, there’s a dead body in their midst, this time followed by a kidnapping. Suspects include fabulously wealthy characters played by an international cast including Mélanie Laurent, Jodie Turner-Smith, Kuhoo Verma, Enrique Arce, and John Kani (returning from the first movie).

Photo: Scott Yamano/Netflix

Even though mercenary badass Miller (Mark Strong) has been called in to track down the kidnappers, Nick and Audrey are emboldened by their previous mystery-solving, so they attempt to help with the new case, which eventually takes them to Paris. Where the first Murder Mystery was a comic spin on Agatha Christie, however, the sequel mixes in some more generic thriller ingredients, with slapstick-y car chases and narrow escapes from massive house fires. The supporting characters, meanwhile, aren’t likable or dimensionalized enough to enable a meaningful twist, or even a clever solution to the sort-of mystery — they’re all equally likely cardboard suspects.

But the mystery plot is beside the point. It provides just enough distraction to keep Sandler and his collaborators away from their worst instincts. There are flashes of those instincts early on, with Sandler and Aniston cosplaying as middle class, goggling at their surroundings on a lush Caribbean island. Tellingly, they don’t seem as impressed by any of the natural beauty on display as they are at the opulence of the wedding’s over-the-top gift bags. (If that’s intended as Ugly American commentary, the gag doesn’t land, though Sandler’s joke about trying to wear shorts to Tavern on the Green back home feels like it emanates from the actor’s soul.) Once Nick and Audrey snap back into detective mode, the movie gets looser, sillier, and more charming.

The couple’s bickering also becomes more agreeable in the thick of the action, as they argue about who’s better equipped to handle a gun. (Hint: It isn’t the one of them who has years of NYPD experience.) Nick and Audrey are essentially a middle-aged, less erudite version of Nick and Nora Charles, the wealthy husband-and-wife sleuths from the six-film Thin Man series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The original 1934 mystery The Thin Man is a crisp mystery-comedy classic, while its sequels are generally thought of as undemanding, good-enough imitations of the original — which is also a pitch-perfect description of Murder Mystery 2.

That may sound like faint praise, but hey, not many Netflix original films could withstand a comparison to the classic Thin Man sequels. So many Netflix-produced films land in an uncanny zone somewhere between lavish theatrical features and low-rent TV movies. But Sandler’s Happy Madison work makes sense on a streaming channel, especially as his audience has shifted from bygone mall multiplexes to the coziness of their couches. No less than There Will Be Blood writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has extolled the virtues of the Sandler comedy as a mood-improving comfort watch.

For a while, whenever that Anderson interview praise was unearthed or reiterated, it came with a bittersweet twinge, since he was mostly referring to earlier Sandler comedies like Happy Gilmore or Big Daddy. There must be an audience that feels as positive about Just Go With It or Jack and Jill (and hey, that theater of the grotesque has its moments), but those later movies have such a peculiar, bullying contempt for large swaths of humanity that they build barriers around Sandler’s nice-schnook sweetness.

Photo: Scott Yamano/Netflix

Murder Mystery 2 features a better class of schnookery. Even at its most eye-rolling, it isn’t dumb enough to be insulting. The occasional self-regard of Sandler’s self-guided moral universe fits with the dogged-detective archetype, even if his Nick isn’t meant to be a Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot-level genius. The movie itself also makes a convincing facsimile of better thrillers, thanks to nice-looking cinematography from Bojan Bazelli, who has worked with Gore Verbinski and Abel Ferrara, and recently launched debates with his upcoming project Peter Pan & Wendy with The Green Knight director David Lowery. With Murder Mystery 2, Bazelli does more location shooting than he has on any number of recent mega-budget productions.

Murder Mystery 2 actually got a brief run in theaters, and it didn’t appear blown out of proportion on the big screen. Still, it’s ideal viewing for a plane or a hotel room, and not because it’s cheap-looking (it isn’t) or disposable (though it is that). Instead, it’s because this Netflix movie offers a modest, portable version of Hollywood travelogue escapism, one that’s more focused and enjoyable than Sandler simply wandering around a vacation property with his buddies, as he did so often a decade ago. At this point, plenty of better filmmakers have done excellent work for Netflix by allowing the company to bankroll their existing vision. But Sandler may be the first movie star to fully readjust his rhythms for the streaming era — and to sharpen his game at the same time. 

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