It spoils nothing to point out that "Murder Mystery," a painless, mostly mirthless action-comedy starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, ends with an explicit homage to Agatha Christie. It's not an especially obscure reference – sorry, "Postern of Fate" fans – which is only to be expected. Any movie with a title like "Murder Mystery" is clearly both announcing and skewering its own obviousness. But it also might be presenting itself as an increasingly rare bird, a throwback to the days when big stars, baroque weapons and a little parlor trickery could yield an inordinate amount of pleasure.
Which is not to imply that the murder mystery is some kind of endangered cinematic subspecies. Christie herself remains a hot commodity, as evidenced by recent screen adaptations of "And Then There Were None" and "Murder on the Orient Express." Even still, we are well past the days when Hollywood churned out classical detective yarns by the dozen for an audience hip to their geeky, creaky puzzle-solving pleasures. For anyone who mourns those days, the mere idea of a daffy, spoofy "Clue" knockoff, with two popular American stars heading up a large international cast, might sound like a reasonably enticing prospect.
The intentions are certainly there in "Murder Mystery" even when the execution falters, as it does early and often. You could think of Nick and Audrey Spitz, a bickering couple on a long-overdue European vacation, as an ugly-American version of Nick and Nora Charles, or perhaps Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Nick (Sandler) is a slovenly NYPD cop who keeps failing his detective exam. Audrey (Aniston) is a long-suffering hairdresser and, conveniently, a mystery buff.
She spends most of their transatlantic flight buried in her latest paperback whodunit, foreshadowing the mayhem to come and establishing herself as the real sleuth of the two. But she also strikes up a conversation with Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans), a handsome first-class passenger who turns out to be an English viscount on his way to a dreaded family reunion. He invites Audrey and Nick along for kicks; they impulsively say yes, and soon find themselves aboard a private yacht overflowing with shrimp cocktail and extremely toxic vibes.
You need only glance at Charles' monstrous billionaire uncle, Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp, in full glower-power mode), to know that he will wind up with a bejeweled dagger in his chest before the night is over. Was he murdered by Toby (David Williams), the son he despised, or Charles, the embittered nephew he recently divested of his fiancee (Shioli Kutsuna)? Or could it have been the glamorous actress (Gemma Arterton), the brooding colonel (John Kani), the wisecracking maharajah (Adeel Akhtar), the hunky Formula One superstar (Luis Gerardo Mendez) or the hulking bodyguard (Olafur Darri Olafsson) – nearly all of whom had good reason to loathe Malcolm even before he announced his decision to cut them out of his will?
Naturally, despite an abundance of motive in Malcolm's inner circle, the easy targets here are Nick and Audrey, who quickly arouse the suspicions of the pompous French detective (Dany Boon) assigned to investigate. And so they set out to prove their innocence, tracking this increasingly frenzied homicidal farce from Malaga to Monte Carlo to Lake Como, where the multiple grisly crime scenes somehow never run the risk of spoiling the scenery. They do, however, tend to cancel out what little hilarity the director Kyle Newacheck ("Game Over, Man!") and his actors are able to muster.
One could imagine a context in which some of this belabored mayhem might be funny, maybe a dinner-theater stage with lots of booze and a strong audience-participation element. Seen from the vantage of your living room, however, the spectacle of Aniston and Sandler bumbling their way through one strained, busy set-piece after another becomes a deflating, even depressing experience. You watch as they submit themselves to the usual hijinks of escape and pursuit, whether it means walking along a narrow upper-story ledge or joining a high-speed car chase, and realize that you long to see them doing just about anything else.
This is hardly the fault of the actors, both game professionals who seem to be following the advice of their 2011 screen pairing, "Just Go With It." Sandler, who can be a superb dramatic actor when given the right role, can't do much with this lame hapless-hubby routine. Aniston, not for the first time, seems more engaged and wide-awake than her material, and you can sense her mental gears grinding away as she tests out bits of business and digs for stray moments of comic gold.
None, alas, are forthcoming. The screenwriter James Vanderbilt, whose credits include the brilliant true-crime procedural "Zodiac," clearly knows enough about plotting to squeeze in a nifty red herring or several, and he's good at planting clues that double neatly as product placements. He does not, however, appear to have an obvious aptitude for comedy, or at least not the spirit of inspired, unruly silliness to which the movie seems to aspire. "Murder Mystery" is a reminder that there are few things harder to pull off, that what looks casually tossed-off, in fact, requires skill and ingenuity, timing and concentration. That's the difference between a comedy that sags and one that kills.
Rating: PG-13, for violence/bloody images, crude sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Streaming on Netflix