Nursery rhymes and Beatles lyrics aside, the generic title of See How They Run recalls those bougie farces spiced with naughty innuendo that were a fixture on London stages in the 1980s. But this starry whodunit is more directly tied to another West End staple, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The film is set in 1953, when that murder mystery was just 100 performances into its ongoing seven-decade run, interrupted only during the COVID shutdown.
Its chief merit is the rare opportunity it provides Saoirse Ronan to showcase her skills with bubbly comedy, making her the standout in a ridiculously overqualified ensemble. But despite the promise of that title, this wheezing romp slows to a limp.
See How They Run
The Bottom Line
Whodunit? Who cares?
Directed and written by Brit TV recruits Tom George and Mark Chappell, respectively, the film has less in common with updated murder-mystery comedies like Knives Out than with the kind of manic capers that came out of England 30 or so years ago, with A Fish Called Wanda among the best of them. At least, that’s what it appears to be aiming for. The result, while it raises a chuckle or two, is more in line with farcically inclined flops like Blame it on the bellboy. Missed that one? Never mind.
From the first murder victim’s wise-ass narration to the over-exertions of Daniel Pemberton’s score, which swerves between jauntiness and intrigue, the production gives off a moldy whiff of desperation. Even the very idea of a whodunit parody seems tired.
That narrator is Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), a smugly cynical film director blacklisted in Hollywood for possible Communist affiliations and now working in London. He’s contracted to direct the film adaptation of The Mousetrap for producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) but makes few concessions to establish an amicable working relationship with self-important writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), a dandified diva who tries to pass off his temperamental Neapolitan boyfriend (Jacon Fortune-Lloyd). as his nephew.
At the after-show party to mark The Mousetrap‘s 100th performance, womanizing Leo gets into a fistfight with the play’s preening star, Dickie Attenborough (an unrecognizable Harris Dickinson), and lands on the seafood buffet. Needing a change of clothes, he repairs to the costume department, where he encounters a masked assailant, as Brody’s narration reminds us — in one of several meta touches — that it’s always the most unlikeable character who gets bumped off in the opening minutes.
The first police officer to arrive at the scene is Constable Stalker (Ronan), a briskly efficient rookie given to taking copious notes when she’s not making corny jokes or gushing like a starstruck theater nerd. Her supervisor is habitually late boozehound Inspector Stoppard, played by a miscast Sam Rockwell, whose accent work isn’t bad, but who nevertheless lacks the quintessentially British qualities required for a role that would have been a better fit for a David Tennant, Ewan McGregor or Rhys Ifans.
Among those confined to the Ambassadors Theater while the investigation gets underway are impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), Dickie and leading lady Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), the usher Dennis (Charlie Cooper), Woolf, his aloof wife Edana (Fleabag ice queen Sian Clifford) and his assistant Ann (Pippa Bennett-Warner), also not so secretly his mistress.
As the police start digging — conscientiously on Stalker’s part, more haphazardly by Stoppard — various motives surface, mostly connected to the Mousetrap film project. A second person turns up dead, but the movie hemorrhages energy just when it should be gathering speed. By the time everyone convenes after receiving a mysterious invite to the Berkshire home of Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson, in a daffy cameo), I was seriously yearning for the playful whodunit parody and delicious character turns of the Neil Simon spoof, Murder by Death.
Even as Chappell’s script goes to great lengths to echo plot points of the Christie play, the set for which turns out to be a virtual replica of the Berkshire drawing room, there’s just not enough fizz or genuine wit in the writing. That puts the burden on the actors to inject life into it with a lot of strained comic business, with Oyelowo in particular going over the top into arch hauteur. But although Ronan gives an amusingly spirited performance, the large ensemble’s members mostly come and go without leaving much of an impression. It’s depressing to see actors of the caliber of Wilson, Shearsmith, Dickinson and Clifford given so little to do, while Brody seems stuck in Wes Anderson mode.
It took two editors to pull this together, with lots of fussy split-screen interludes to shuffle the action and show multiple perspectives, yet the pacing remains off.
Perhaps the tourists who are still rolling up to see The Mousetrap in London will get a kick out of the nods here to the production’s long history — Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim really were part of the original cast, and the film’s title actually comes from Christie’s radio play template, Three Blind Mice. But naming a key character after playwright Tom Stoppard, whose The Real Inspector Hound was a far more inventive and slyly humorous riff on The Mousetrapdoes no one any favors.
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