Review: ‘See How They Run’ murder mystery is part whodunit, part spoof

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'See How They Run'

Over the last five years, the whodunit genre has seen a surprise resurgence, from Kenneth Branagh’s colorful remake “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) to Rian Johnson’s twisty awards contender “Knives Out” (2019) to streaming comedy series such as Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” (2021) and Apple TV’s “The Afterparty” (2022).

Now it’s Tom George’s turn with “See How They Run,” a zany, self-aware romp that’s caught somewhere between a genre spoof and an actual murder mystery, creating a concoction that’s sure to please devout fans of the genre but probably won’t win any converts.

Set in 1953 London amid the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” Hollywood director Leo Köpernick visits theater producer John Woolf to discuss a film adaptation. When Köpernick is mysteriously killed backstage, Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) investigates alongside new sidekick Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

Your enjoyment of the film hinges on the Wes Anderson-style chemistry between the two lead detectives, who banter back and forth as they investigate the various crime scenes, pausing only for Constable Stalker to make classic movie references and Inspector Stoppard to deliver so-bad-they’re-good puns.

Rockwell is the grizzled veteran drinking away his marital sorrows, showing more pathos than his Oscar-winning racist cop in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), Oscar-nominated George W. Bush in “Vice” (2018) and Emmy-nominated Bob Fosse in “Fosse/Verdon” (2019).

Conversely, Ronan is the bright-eyed novice who’s so excited to be on the case that she arrests suspects the second they say something remotely incriminating. It’s fun to see a silly side to Ronan, who’s been dramatic as a transatlantic romantic in “Brooklyn” (2015), rebellious teenager in “Lady Bird” (2017) and literary sister in “Little Women” (2019).

The rest of the cast is game: David Oyelowo (“Selma”) as sensitive playwright Mervyn, Pearl Chanda and Harris Dickinson as husband-and-wife co-stars Sheila Sim and Richard Attenborough, Adrien Brody as slain film director Köpernick, Reece Shearsmith as theater producer Woolf, Sian Clifford as Woolf’s wife and Ruth Wilson as producer Petula Spencer.

The ensemble cast often appears in split screens by director Tom George, sometimes for flashy variety in the style of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) or Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” (2022), other times to convey information as different characters move about backstage, slipping out of their theater seats saying “excuse me” en route to the bathroom.

The best moments come as screenwriter Mark Chappell embraces his inner Mel Brooks or Monty Python to spoof the form itself. At one point, a character says that he hates flashbacks, only to cut to a flashback. Another character mocks the idea of abrupt title cards reading “Three Months Later,” only for a title card to appear: “Three Months Later.”

However, the script becomes tedious when it becomes just a regular whodunit. There are enough red herrings to keep us off track, including a preposterous twist that thankfully doesn’t pan out. Even so, the end reveal isn’t that shocking, but it at least ties into British theater history and the impact it had on the personal lives of its various participants.

Ultimately, it’s a whimsical watch if you enjoy whodunits. If you were mixed on “Murder on the Orient Express,” you might also be mixed on “See How They Run.” Neither quite live up to the intrigue of “Knives Out,” but “See How They Run” can tide you over until “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” hits theaters in November and Netflix in December.

As for audiences, it’s not “see how they ran to tell their friends to watch it.” It’s more like “see how they walked home moderately amused,” happy for a date night movie that did the job, no more, no less. I wish it would have leaned into its Monty Python potential all the way. Murder mysteries would be much more fun if the victim yelled, “I’m not dead yet!”

3 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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