Only Murders in the Building Review: Hulu Crime Comedy Is Sharp - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, August 23, 2021

Only Murders in the Building Review: Hulu Crime Comedy Is Sharp

It's easy to step back and criticize the inherent exploitation in the true crime genre; I've done it for this very website. It's harder to make those points through sharp satire while also telling an earnest mystery-thriller story while also diving into the melancholy interior lives of the characters making these points through this mystery. Only Murders in the Building spins all of these plates classily, with a quiet confidence that is nevertheless surprising. It's a real humdinger of a show, offering something for everyone simultaneously, pulling it all off handsomely.

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Steve Martin is a lonely actor past his prime on a shlocky CBS detective show, settling into a life of misanthropy. Martin Short is a gregarious director past his prime making off-off-Broadway flops, settling into a life of instability. Selena Gomez is a young adult for whom settling is not yet an option; instead, she stubbornly searches for the truth wherever she goes. The three disparate folks live in a New York City apartment building, bonded by a love of true crime podcasts. And when a real-life murder rocks their very apartment building, the three start a podcast of their own, stumbling for the answer to this stumbled-upon mystery, uncovering all kinds of secrets and dangers along the way.

There is a depth to Only Murders in the Building not inherent in its premise, a willingness to slow and burrow and muck around in tonal complexities; if Search Party is the TV comedy-thriller as a shot of espresso, Only Murders is a caffé macchiato in a tall mug. It's rife with melancholy, heaviness, and outright sadness, even as performers we know and love for their broad comedy center the action (Martin and Short, obviously, but also Nathan Lane, whose committed performance and character journey dropped my jaw more than once). It's intriguing and intoxicating to see how Martin and Short find new corners of their well-established personae, gifting themselves with the range to play wide, physical gags right next to prickly, even unlikeable emotional explorations. And Gomez delivers excellent work alongside them; while her character's range is designedly more muted than Martin and Short, it yields a welcome contrast, giving the show its welcomed darkness and stakes, both physically and emotionally (and when Gomez gets to cut her scene partners with a sharp, deadpan joke, look out).

Of the emotional stakes: Only Murders dives and re-dives into the inherent gulf present when engaging with true crime, one that I might label as being between "humanity" and "content." Our main characters rock between moments of intellectual self-awareness and emotional obliviousness, sometimes within words of each other ("Every true crime story is true for someone," sighs Martin in one episode, prompting Short to retort, "And this is just occurring to you now?"). There is a queasiness, even in fake characters played by famous people solving fake murders, in watching someone take glee at someone else's suffering, in hoping more bad things happen to make a good story, in churning pain into product. Only Murders communicates this organically and effectively by making this case more and more personal for each character (especially Gomez), forcing them to reckon with the cost of their personal (selfish?) crusade when the blood gets closer and closer to their clothes. In this reckoning, the show often discovers the pitiable truth at the center of its subjects, the gaping, aching hole of emotional emptiness they're trying to fill with this case... but with very good jokes throughout! Sorry, just wanted to remind you that this is in fact a comedy, and it balances and chases all of this sadness with very, very good jokes. Quite the feat!

And of the physical stakes: The title tells you that life is on the line, and the show does not shy away from that most heightened of potential consequences. When Only Murders in the Building wants to grab you by the throat as a mystery-thriller, it does so with extra force and surprise, given the other storytelling modes and tones it's also exploring; this eight-episode season's finest half-hour, told with ingenious, organic formal experimentalism, is a gut-punch of horror followed by a sprint through suspense-driven empathy (all with, again, jokes that help make these hard thriller moments land even harder). It's also told with exceptional filmmaking panache, a visual grammar established by intriguing directors like Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader) and Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) that can play classical moments of composition for laughs (the use of a three-shot in one episode made me cackle so hard I had to pause) just as much as it can slide into casual surrealism for pathos (Episode 1 sums up the "why" of the entire series with a single otherworldly, balletic image shared by each main character).

By and large, none of the visual trickery in the show, nor the rapid descent into violent stakes, nor the jokes-followed-by-searing-melancholy-followed-by-jokes dialogue feels like a gimmick, like a show spinning so many wheels the car will explode. It's all under intentional control; you will feel very taken care of while watching Only Murders in the Building. It's a welcome commentary — and version of — many things you've seen before while synthesizing all of its individually familiar components to create something brand new. It's Edgar Wright meets 30 Rock. It's bold but calm, terrifying but comforting, sad but silly, satirical but empathetic — and it's all of these things served to you by chefs who trust you, because you trust them.

Grade: A-

Only Murders in the Building premieres its first three episodes on Hulu August 31, 2021, with episodes airing weekly afterward.

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