Producers: Damian Jones and Gina Carter Director: Tom George Screenplay: Mark Chappell Cast: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo, Charlie Cooper, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Pearl Chanda, Sian Clifford, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Shirley Henderson, Tim Key, Angus Wright, Lucian Msamati, Ania Marson, Jacon Fortune-Lloyd, Sian Clifford, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Paul Chahidi Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
The idea behind “See How They Run” is a clever one, but the execution of it is somewhat maladroit. The result is a comedy funnier in expectation than delivery, while still being moderately engaging.
The script by Mark Chappell, a British sitcom writer, is a spoof of English whodunits of the Agatha Christie school, typified by “The Mousetrap,” her country-house murder mystery that opened on the West End in 1952 and has been running there continuously ever since (apart from a recent pandemic pause), becoming a London institution. It was based on an earlier radio play titled “Three Blind Mice,” so the connection is already made clear in Chappell’s title.
But the link goes far beyond that. The screwy plot begins with the hundredth performance of “The Mousetrap,” which is being celebrated by its money-grubbing producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) with a big party. The bash is attended not only by the cast, headed by Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and his wife Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), but by the team slated to make a movie of the play, though filming cannot actually begin until the stage production closes. They include philandering film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), arrogant screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Smith (David Oyelowo) and blustery, blacklisted director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), whose voiceover narration sets the stage for what follows.
That’s a murder at the party, of course—the victim won’t be revealed here—which naturally leads to the arrival of the police. The chief investigator assigned by the publicity-conscious commissioner (Tim Key) is Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, his name a tip of the hat to playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote a wicked sendup of the whodunit genre, “The Real Inspector Hound,” in 1968); his overeager assistant is newbie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). Stoppard is lazy and indifferent, Stalker energetic and punctilious.
The investigation centers on a mysterious man seen on the night of the murder by a theatre usher named Dennis (Charlie Cooper), and it’s marked by interrogations of the various suspects, flashbacks upon flashbacks illustrating their testimony, and, of course, more homicides. Everything finally winds up at the isolated country of Dame Agatha (Shirley Henderson) and her husband, cheery archaeologist Max Mallowan (Lucian Msamati, in an example of color-blind casting), where the survivors congregate and the identity of the killer, as well as the motive behind the murders, are revealed. (While not precisely duplicating the surprise ending of the play, it certainly comes close, as well as referring back to the case that inspired Christie in the first place.) A final joke recalls an alternative ending Köpernick had proposed for his movie in order to make it more exciting, which other characters had rejected as entirely unsuitable to the genre.
“See How They Run” is decked out in vibrant, if theatrical 1953 period detail by production designer Amanda McArthur and costumer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and cinematographer James D. Ramsay sets off their work nicely. But while Chappell has come up with a cunning setup and a few good jokes, his work lacks the consistent keenness a spoof like this should have, and George’s direction isn’t as sharp as it should be; there’s a lackadaisical quality to too many sequences, and the tempos are slightly off. Matters aren’t helped by the editing of Gary Dollner and Peter Lambert, which adds to the feeling of slackness except when they gussy things up with devices like multi-split screens. Daniel Pemberton tries to add some energy with a jazzily upbeat score, but it often comes over as overbearing.
All of which leaves a lot up to the cast, who respond with performances that are, predictably for this kind of romp, egregiously over-the-top (Brody and Oyelowo most pronouncedly). Those coming off best are Ronan and Rockwell, the former bringing flustered verve to the intense but fidgety constable, with her obsession about note-taking and the latter, though not ideally cast in a part that would have fitted an actual Brit better, providing fairly good counterpoint to her as the world-weary cop stuck in burnout mode. Henderson shows up in the end to go wild as the dotty author.
“See How They Run” is amiable enough, but will certainly not enjoy the longevity of the play it’s sending up. Of course, to tell the truth “The Mousetrap” is no great shakes either, despite its astronomical success in the West End.