Film Review: Murder Mystery (dir by Kyle Newacheck)


There are actually two Adam Sandlers.

First, there’s the Adam Sandler that everyone knows.  This Adam Sandler is the comedian who has won multiple Razzie awards and who has produced and starred in some of the most critically derided comedies of all time.  This is the Adam Sandler who often seems to make movies specifically so he can either take a vacation or give some work to the less successful members of his entourage.  This is the Adam Sandler whose movies were cited as a tool of patriarchal oppression in the “cool girl” speech during Gone Girl.

And then there’s another Adam Sandler.  This Adam Sandler is a sad-eyed character actor who is probably one of modern cinema’s best portrayers of existential malaise.  This is the Adam Sandler who starred in movies like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Funny People, Spanglish, The Cobbler, Men, Women, and Children, and The Meyerowitz Stories.  Some of those films were very good and some of them, admittedly, were very bad but what they all had in common was that they featured Adam Sandler giving a surprisingly good dramatic performance.  In fact, if someone only saw Adam Sandler’s dramatic work (and not his work in films like Jack and Jill or Grown-Ups, to cite just two examples), they would be justified in assuming that Sandler was one of the most acclaimed actors around.  (One reason why we get so much more annoyed with Sandler’s bad comedies — as opposed to all the other equally bad comedies out there — is because we actually have evidence that Sandler’s capable of doing so much better.)

Unfortunately, almost all of Sandler’s dramatic films were box office disappointments.  Punch-Drunk Love is now widely viewed as being a classic but, when it was first released, it failed to even recoup its production budget at the box office.  Audiences consistently indicated they preferred silly Adam Sandler to dramatic Adam Sandler and so, Sandler continued to make silly theatrical films until even those started to bring in less money than they had before.

As of now, Sandler does most of his work for Netflix and the results have been mixed.  His performance in The Meyerowitz Stories was rightfully acclaimed while his comedies have been considerably less celebrated.  And then you have the just-released Murder Mystery, which seems to straddle the line between the two Sandlers.

On the one hand, Murder Mystery is just as silly and implausible as a typical Adam Sandler comedy.  Sandler plays a New York police officer named Nick Spitz.  Nick has failed his detective’s exam three times but that still hasn’t stopped him from telling his wife, Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), that he’s been promoted.  Nick’s living a lie and he deals with his guilt by taking Audrey on a long-promised trip to Europe.  On the flight over, Audrey meets the charming and wealthy Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) who invites Audrey and Nick to a party on his family’s yacht.  The yacht is owned by billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terrence Stamp) and, when Malcolm’s murdered during the party, it’s up to fake Detective Nick to figure out who is responsible!

Was it the glamorous actress, Grace (Gemma Arterton)?  Or the handsome race car driver, Juan Carlos (Luis Gerardo Mendez)?  Or how about the genocidal warlord, Colonel Ulenga (John Kani)?  Of course, the local Interpol detective (Dany Boon) thinks that it was Nick and Audrey and he even threatens to reveal that Nick’s been lying about his job!  Can Nick and Audrey solve the murder and rekindle the romance of their stalled marriage?

As I said, it’s all pretty silly.  Most of the film’s humor comes from just how out-of-place Nck and Audrey are in the world of high society.  Audrey is excited because the murder mystery is just like the plot of one of the paperback novels that she likes to read.  Nick spends most of the movie trying to keep his wife from discovering the truth about his job.  While everyone else is scheming and plotting and trying to kill one another, Nick and Audrey are literally searching Wikipedia for information on all the suspects.  It’s dumb and occasionally amusing and it’s also rather innocent.  If your grandmother ever wants to watch a comedy with you, Murder Mystery would probably be the one to go with.  There’s nothing to offend grandma but, at the same time, the shots of Monaco and Italy are nice to look at and the film is occasionally amusing enough to hold your attention.

Interestingly, even though the film’s a silly comedy, Sandler gives one of his more grounded performances.  There’s no silly voices or sudden yelling or any of the typical Sandler shtick.  Instead, he’s rather subdued and it works for the film.  He and Jennifer Aniston (another performer who often seems to settle for material that’s beneath what she’s capable of) make for a likable and believable couple and they both play off each other well.

Murder Mystery is a likable, lightweight comedy.  It’s not necessarily something that you’re going to remember much about after you watch it, of course.  It’s not that type of film.  Instead, it’s a perfect Netflix film.  It’s entertaining but you can do other stuff while you’re watching it without having to worry about accidentally missing a brilliant moment of cinematic history.

As for Adam Sandler, he’s following this up with Uncut Gems, a crime drama from the Safdie Brothers.  The Safdie Brothers worked wonders with Robert Pattinson in 2017’s Good Time.  So, who knows?  This time next year, Adam Sandler could be the new Superman….

Playing Catch-Up: The BFG (dir by Steven Spielberg)


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I heard so many negative things about Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The BFG, that I was really expecting it to be terrible.  When it came out this summer, a lot of critics seemed to take an almost perverse delight in talking about its flaws and some people actually seemed to be thrilled over the fact that it flopped at the box office.

And I have to admit that the commercials that I had seen didn’t really fill me with much desire to actually sit through the movie.  Mark Rylance looked vaguely grotesque as the giant.  Add to that, I spent several months convinced that BFG stood for “Big Fucking Giant.”  Once I was reminded that he was actually a Big Friendly Giant, I was kinda like, “But wouldn’t my way be more fun?”

But anyway, I finally watched The BFG last night and it’s actually not terrible.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not great.  In many ways, this movie is Spielberg at his most sentimental.  Imagine if every triumphant musical cue in Lincoln was stretched out for two hours and you might have an idea as to how he approaches The BFG.  At times, I had a hard time following the film’s storyline, largely because the pacing was totally off.  As a director, Spielberg never seems to be quite sure if he’s making a film exclusively for kids or if he’s trying to make a film that adults can appreciate with their children.  It’s a tonal mess.

And yet, for all those weaknesses, The BFG has enough sweet moments that it feels a little bit churlish to be too critical of it.  Spielberg’s heart seems to be in the right place, even if he is struggling to figure out how to express himself.  As I watched the film, I felt bad about being so dismissive of what I had seen of Rylance’s performance in the commercials leading up the actual film.  Rylance gives a heartfelt and warm performance, playing a giant who, because he is so nice, is bullied by even bigger giants.

As I said, I struggled to follow the film’s story.  I knew that BFG had been forced to abduct an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) because she saw him and he couldn’t risk her accidentally revealing his existence to the rest of the world.  I also understood that BFG also had protect her from the other giants because the last child he befriended was eaten by those other giants.  But then there was all this stuff about dream time and eventually, Queen Elizabeth II showed up and declared war on the evil giants and I was just so confused.  For once, Spielberg’s skills as a story-teller fail him.  It’s hard to believe that they same director who did the simple and economical Duel also did The BFG.

To be honest, the folks at Pixar, with their trademark mix of sentiment and subversion, would have been the ideal team to take on The BFG.  Spielberg’s instincts are so resolutely mainstream that he doesn’t seem to understand how to best approach some of the story’s more “out there” elements.  But that said, The BFG isn’t terrible.  Mark Rylance does a really good job as the giant and, as you would expect from any Spielberg film, the film is undeniably visually impressive.

The BFG may not be great but it’s not awful.