“Murder Mystery,” a cheeky pasteboard detective thriller-meets-middle-aged-romance that became a popular hit for Netflix four years ago, had the inspiration to team Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston as Nick and Audrey Spitz, a dweeby-sweet New York couple — he was a cop trying, and failing, to get promoted to detective; she was a hairdresser — whose marriage-on-auto-pilot needed a dose of shock therapy. They got it when they went on the European getaway that Nick, a compulsive cheapskate, had been promising to Audrey for 15 years. The two wound up on a yacht, at a geezer aristocrat’s party, which turned out to be his death sentence the moment he cut everyone there out of his will.
“Murder Mystery 2,” like “Murder Mystery” before it, is an agreeably slapdash casserole. The first film was an Agatha Christie knockoff, a kind of “Murder on the Idiot Express” with the two American rubes stepping in for Hercule Poirot (though the movie had a token Poirot figure as well). It was also a “Knives Out” mystery done on what felt like one-tenth the budget, with the suspects all cartoons out of central casting. (The best of them was Adeel Ahktar’s Maharajah, who was like Ali G’s less pensive, more exuberant hip-hop cousin.) It was a thin riff on the “Thin Man” films, with two romantic clods flaunting their 21st-century vulgarity in place of Nick and Nora Charles’ martini elegance. And it was, at moments, a vintage Adam Sandler comedy, though with the anarchy reduced to a hostile shrug of dimly recalled rebellion. In its sub-deluxe way, the movie connected.
So will “Murder Mystery 2.” It’s only 89 minutes long (10 minutes shorter than the first film), and for a while it feels like even more of a Wiffle-ball entertainment. Nick and Audrey have launched their own private detective agency, and as the opening scene demonstrates they’re just as desperately inept at it as Nick is at shooting his gun. (Is the fact that he’s such a terrible shot an analogue for his sexual insecurity? You bet. That’s the kind of comedy this is.)
The two are summoned overseas once again, this time to attend the wedding of their old suspect-turned-buddy the Maharajah, a.k.a. Vikram. They land on a tropical island that makes paradise look shabby, though Nick is as focused on the wedge of artisanal cheese left in their bedroom as a welcome gift as he is on the setting. The pre-wedding celebration looks like a Bollywood musical shot on the Netflix catering budget. Another murder of a wealthy person everyone hates might seem almost too tacky, so this time it’s a kidnapping. It’s Vikram who’s snatched, a crime that turns into a quintessential MacGuffin, an excuse for Nick and Audrey to get into a romp through Paris, even as they again become the case’s chief suspects.
You could say that made-for-streaming movies have a certain baseline aesthetic: broader, schlockier, and more obvious than films made for theaters, with less creamy lighting. They have an eager-to-please utilitarian connect-the-dots quality. But you could also say, in an age when your average theatrical hit is suffused with FX sensation, often at the expense of the humanity that drew people to movies for most of the last century, that the stripped-down, Look, I’m a piece of product! quality of a made-for-streaming movie can, in its cookie-cutter way, deliver bits of the old humanity in a way that too many theatrical features don’t quite anymore. That’s because streaming films, or enough of them anyway, literally can’t afford to do anything else.
“Murder Mystery 2” is what we used to call a TV-movie, and now a streaming movie — a genial formulaic package, with two stars who aren’t exactly about to topple Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Yet Sandler and Aniston mesh; they made you believe in Nick and Audrey’s cantankerous marriage, and in the love percolating just beneath the fighting. If what Nora Ephron devised was a clever Xerox of the rom-com, “Murder Mystery 2” is a Xerox of the Xerox, powered by a whodunit plot that’s a cheesy light parody of itself played just straight enough to work.
Mark Strong shows up, as an ex-MI6 agent, with a best-selling book to his credit and plans to solve the crime. An epic van chase, with our heroes commandeering axes, guns, and pink-fur sex handcuffs, transforms the film into a flaked-out action comedy — but, of course, that’s an old and rather standard genre, less distinctive than the screwball dither that sustained “Murder Mystery.”
The new movie has a different director, Jeremy Garelick (with a script once again by James Vanderbilt), who is smart enough not to get in the way of the Sandler-and-Aniston bickering. There’s another sports car (a yellow Lamborghini), and once again Audrey is driving. There’s a climactic rendezvous in the Jules Verne restaurant on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, and once again Nick and Audrey seem to be making it all up as they go along. On the detective competence scale, they’re somewhere between Inspector Clouseau and David Addison and Maddie Hayes in “Moonlighting.” The “Murder Mystery” films aren’t great mysteries, but they don’t have to be. They’re good enough. What audiences respond to in them is the interplay of Adam Sandler, as a grump with a chip on his shoulder but an even larger sense of loyalty, and Jennifer Aniston, as a sweetheart who is done being life’s second banana. Their chemical charm scores again in “Murder Mystery 2,” and you can bet they’ll be back, even if not in movie theaters. They’re part of the stream of things.