Mystery fans will recall their favourite husband and wife teams: Tommy and Tuppence, Lord Peter and Harriet, and, especially from film, Nick and Nora Charles.
Netflix’s Murder Mystery updates the formula and banks on a similar chemistry. Taking its cue from The Thin Man, it offers a new Nick (Adam Sandler) and a new Nora, so new she’s named Audrey (Jennifer Aniston). Do they match the sparkle of the Charleses of the classic Dashiell Hammett films? Not really.
The story begins with a distraught Nick discovering he’s failed his detective exam for the third time. That’s bad, but the bigger difficulty is keeping it from Audrey. He manages the ruse by fulfilling an old promise to take her to Europe. On the plane they meet Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans), an oh-so-posh Englishman who rather improbably invites them to his yacht in lieu of their travelling about France and Italy on a tour bus.
Once on board, the couple (now called the Spitzes) find themselves among the filthy rich, an odd business insofar as Nick and Audrey are a couple of socially inept klutzes who wouldn’t know a tuxedo from a turnip. Worse than that, they are mired in a family feud. Patriarch Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp) has stolen Cavendish’s fiancée (Shioli Kutsuna) for his own and announces at a tense gathering that he has disinherited all but his new wife-to-be. Moreover, they can watch him sign the will as an unwelcomed Nick (dressed in shorts, swilling beer) and Audrey stand by. The lights go out, and guess what? When they come on, Daddy Dearest is dead.
Soon Interpol’s Inspector de la Croix (Dany Boon) arrives and proves as mentally incompetent as the Spitzes are socially. Without so much as examining the murder weapon for fingerprints, he quickly concludes that Nick and Audrey are guilty. And so the whodunit takes on the added element of the framed couple hopping from town to town trying to prove their innocence.
Nick and Nora of The Thin Man were famous for their rapid-fire wit and high style, something largely missing in Murder Mystery. And although no one should mistake their polish for virtue (Nick and Nora love their cocktails perhaps a bit too much), one ought to acknowledge that they possess a marked degree of intelligence with a love of fine and sometimes beautiful things (well, if, judging from the Charleses’ home in After the Thin Man, beauty means Art Deco).
Might one detect a cultural decline from Nick Charles’s bespoke suit to Nick Spitz’s shorts and ratty shirt, from Nora’s cleverness to Audrey’s snide jokes? Indeed, one might. And a so-so mystery without the class and wit is just a bit lame. Watch it only if you can forget its pedigree.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia