You cannot beat a good old-fashioned murder mystery. It’s not rocket science, but one of the basic pleasures of films, tv and books is to successfully identify the killer, sifting through the evidence, setting aside the red-herrings, and fingering the culprit before they can strike again. Steve Martin was once the original ‘wild and crazy guy’, but that was forty years ago, and he’s settled down and happy to pour some old wine into new bottles. Only Murders in the Building is as familiar as an old armchair, and just as comfortable.
In a neat bit of writing, Martin casts himself as actor Charles Hayden-Savage, previously known as tv detective Brazzos. He lives in a fictional super-swanky, mega-plush Upper West Side Manhattan building named the Arconia. His friend, Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) is on his uppers, and neither of these old codgers are of much interest to singleton Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez). But Mabel has an undisclosed past, and when the building’s elderly occupants are shocked by the murder of a young man named Tim Kono, she’s hiding a secret from the rest of her team as the unlikely trio start their own podcast to investigate the crime…
Few places on earth offer the unrestrained snootiness of the New York class system, and Martin and Co have fun setting themselves against the grain; there’s plenty of guilty parties keen to shut their little podcast down. And while there’s some funny lines, and some physical comedy from Martin, it’s Martin’s ability to capture, mimic and parody the genre conventions that makes Only Murders in the Building work. With celebrity suspects ranging from Nathan Lane, Jane Lynch, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan and even Sting as himself, there’s also plenty of glam and glitz to tide us over.
It’s odd that the murder-mystery is seen as so passé now; outside of the Orient Express reboot, it’s a genre largely consigned to tv. But Martin’s project has a neat attitude; one episode has no dialogue at all, and is told from the point of view of a deaf character. That’s a challenge that Martin doesn’t have to make, and it’s extraordinary that he makes it work; he’s always been a creative force, and Only Murders in the Building marks a welcome comeback for the star.