SEE HOW THEY RUN is a handsomely mounted period piece with a clever premise undermined by an irksome dithering about its tone and a rampant directorial lethargy. Calling out tropes from cinema and literary mysteries with the sort of wild abandon from which the pacing would have profited, this uneven comedy takes us to 1953, where the 100th performance of The Mousetrap is being commemorated by a party, a fist-fight, and a murder.
The victim is Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), who narrates from beyond the grave with, ahem, shots at whodunnit clichés, such as it’s always the least likable character that’s killed off right away, and an assortment of observations and interactions with others that establish why he fits that description. He’s in London to direct the screen version of Agatha’s Christie’s hit play, and though only there a short time, has managed to give almost everyone involved in the production a motive to knock him off. The murder puts a halt to the planned film version, seeming to clear some of the principles before the usual round of revelations.
Enter Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), a gruff detective with a drinking problem and a dark secret. Or rather, he stumbles into his assistant, Constable Stalker (Saoirsie Ronan), an eager novice with a penchant for babbling and a fondness for cinema. Their rocky relationship offers what spark there is to be found here, courtesy of some of the film’s best lines, and their finely honed sense of straight-faced absurdity. He subtly mocking the enthusiasm of assistant assigned to him, and she taking it to heart but gamely carrying on.
Mixing fact and fiction (Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) stars in the play, Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) makes a pivotal move during the dénouement, The Mousetrap is still running in London’s West End), we are treated to the usual suspects from a fey and temperamental screenwriter (David David Oyelowo) and his tempestuous Neapolitan “nephew” (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), to the rapacious theatrical producer (Ruth WIlson), to the adulterous film producer (Reece Shearsmith), and to the cast of the play-within-the-film themselves.
Certainly, it is lovely to soak in the recreated post-war London presented with the warm glow of the saturated colors so reminiscent of that era’s cinema. Plus, the plot is solid enough, with a deliciously served red herring and a few tidy twists, but the metronomic pacing keeps it from becoming the sharp exercise in silliness it was meant to be. Instead, it creeps along trailing call-outs (erudite and not) and dashed expectations.
SEE HOW THEY RUN is a great idea for a film, undercut by its insistence on mixing farce with intermittent poignance. A move guaranteed to bemuse the audience with uncertainty about how to perceive particular moments as it waits for a punch line that will never come. If only it delivered on its promise.