Since 2015, Adam Sandler has made six projects for Netflix—five feature films and a comedy special. The movies have traversed genres (Western, action, romantic comedy, showbiz mockumentary), and nearly all have been poorly received. Netflix doesn’t care. The streaming company extended its exclusive arrangement with the actor in 2017, claiming his viewership numbers were huge. And so last weekend, subscribers were treated to the latest Sandler project, Murder Mystery, where the premise and cast feel almost algorithmically assembled. Sandler and Jennifer Aniston play a bored married couple who take a European vacation only to get sucked into, well, a mystery involving a murder.
The film arrives after what one might generously term a Sandler renaissance. Long a target of critical derision (outside of independent films such as The Meyerowitz Stories and Punch-Drunk Love), the actor appeared to be doubling down on the cheap gags of his worst-regarded cinematic output (Grown Ups, Jack and Jill) when he joined Netflix. The Ridiculous 6, a spoof Western, was particularly castigated for its stereotypical humor about Native Americans. But in recent months, Sandler released a comedy special (titled 100% Fresh) that drew raves for its goofy sentimentality. He also returned to host Saturday Night Live, the show that launched his career, and acquitted himself well.
I wish I could say Murder Mystery continues that hot streak, but the highest praise I can give the new film, directed by Kyle Newacheck and written by James Vanderbilt, is that it provokes a few worthy chuckles. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has received a comparatively rosy 43 percent positive reviews (Sandler’s other Netflix efforts earned between 0 percent and 27 percent), yet the only thing that really stood out to me was the actor’s choice to wear a mustache this time around. Otherwise, his performance had the typical schlubby, laid-back energy he usually brings to these films.
But watching Murder Mystery, I realized that Sandler’s reliable sameness is no drawback, but rather part of his appeal to a company like Netflix. The lead characters he plays share the same basic personality—sardonic, chill, and quick to grumble about the pressures of being married with children. The films have extremely familiar genre plots: The Do-Over is an action comedy about mistaken identities, The Week Of is a Father of the Bride–style wedding comedy, and Murder Mystery is essentially an extended game of Clue featuring various colorful supporting characters as the suspects. Sandler’s big co-stars also tend to be actors he’s worked with before, such as Aniston, David Spade, Kevin James, and Chris Rock.
These are the sorts of movies to watch while you’re browsing the internet or playing Candy Crush on your phone. They’re background cinema, the perfect kind of offering for Netflix, which is enjoyed almost exclusively in the home. Murder Mystery is just convoluted enough to keep viewers guessing, but its cadre of potential perps (played by recognizable faces such as Gemma Arterton, John Kani, and Luke Evans) are easy enough caricatures that you can zone out for minutes at a time and still keep track of the general dynamics at work. Through it all, the mustachioed Sandler shrugs and giggles at the shenanigans, as if to let the audience know not to take anything too seriously.
The one exception to Sandler’s sleepy Netflix oeuvre is 2017’s Sandy Wexler, which I praised at the time as standing out from the pack because of its slightly more barbed approach to the vagaries of Hollywood fame. But even that movie had the same vignette-heavy storytelling, vibrant ensemble, and broad humor that Sandler relies on to play to the widest audience possible. Murder Mystery is the first of a new batch of four films Netflix ordered from the star, and his ability to keep pumping them out could help extend his shelf life as a big name, despite the fact that he hasn’t starred in a live-action studio film released in theaters since 2015’s video-game comedy Pixels.
Many of the major stars of the ’90s have struggled to keep their luster as Hollywood becomes dominated by well-known brands rather than marquee names. Tom Cruise has made a number of recent box-office disappointments (The Mummy, American Made), but he keeps re-upping his Mission: Impossible franchise to hang on to his summer-movie cachet. Will Smith agreed to appear in a superhero movie (Suicide Squad) and a Disney remake (Aladdin) to recover from a series of flops. Sandler retreated to streaming TV, where most studios are now pivoting in an attempt to stabilize their own future. Murder Mystery might seem like a fluffy, forgettable charmer when you watch it. But behind the scenes, it’s telling a story about the evolution of show business for a new, distracted generation.