Everyone’s a suspect in a good murder mystery, but that doesn’t always mean more is more. While a large ensemble leaves more room for speculation, the delight of such a grandiose setup lies in having a wide array of interesting characters. Hoping to capitalize on the runaway success of 2019’s “Knives Out,” Searchlight has made its own star-studded whodunit, “See How They Run.” Taking a literal page from Agatha Christie, the movie sets its intrigue during a 1952 West End run of “The Mousetrap” as movie producers circle the hit play.
With a flashy period aesthetic that can only be described as Wes Anderson-lite and a played-out insider Hollywood plot, “See How They Run” packs a lot of characters into a thin story that leaves little room for the considerable talent to stand out. It may be inspired by the greatest mystery writer of all time, but it’s an uninspired copy at best.
As our smooth-talking narrator and primary murder victim, hot-shot American movie director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) sets expectations low. “It’s a whodunit,” he says to the audience, hoping to charm them with winking exposition. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.” Loosely filling a tuxedo as only Brody could, Leo casually recounts the night that led to his murder, having no trouble provoking multiple partygoers at the play’s 100th performance celebration. When he heads backstage for a new change of clothes after a drunken tussle, he’s attacked by a shadowy figure in a trench coat and soft felt hat. With such little description to go on, everyone’s a suspect.
There’s the movie’s producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who’s trying to broker peace between Leo and screenwriter Mervyn (David Oyelowo), who doesn’t take kindly to the director’s flashy story ideas. Christie isn’t the only real person to make the cut: The movie features actress Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), wife of the late great Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who ends up face down in a cake after defending his wife’s honor from Leo’s advances. Other sundry suspects include theater owner Petula (Ruth Wilson), hot-headed Italian boy toy Gio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), the producer’s secretary and girlfriend Ann (Pippa Bennett-Warner), and his aggrieved wife Edana (“Fleabag” star Sian Clifford).
Pearl Chanda and Adrien Brody in “See How They Run”
But the real stars of the movie are the odd couple police duo tasked with untangling the bloody mess. Bearing a name to please thespians, the case is assigned to Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), a weathered detective whose process includes many thinking breaks at the pub. Much to his chagrin, he’s paired with enthusiastic youngster Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). A fresh-faced novice who’s anxiously studying for her sergeant’s exams, Stalker takes everything Stoppard says to heart, scribbling diligent notes in her little red notebook. As charming with comedy as she is compelling in dramas, Ronan is the only one who manages to eke out an interesting character from the broad sketches the script offers its actors.
Not for lack of trying. There are plenty of cheeky theater witticisms in Mark Chappell’s script that probably read well on paper, but don’t quite sing on the screen. “What possible reason would I have for strangling a playwright?” one accused suspect asks. “I haven’t seen anything he’s done.” And of course, there are little Shakespearean clues like, “Maybe the play’s the thing that ties it all together.” One can almost hear a wry chuckle off camera when Dickie Attenborough admits “The Mouse Trap” is “not exactly Hamlet.”
In classic Christie style, the whole group eventually ends up at the same house on a snowy night, lured by a false invitation to The Dame herself’s (Shirley Henderson) home. Once they’re all together in a room, a certain comedic chemistry begins to simmer, but it’s over almost as soon as it begins. If the play really was the thing, Chappell and director Tom George might have borrowed more liberally from Christie and set the whole thing in a single location instead of sending his detectives all around town on a wild goose chase. As Stoppard and Stalker chase down each lead, giving each character their own scene, the tension has no choice but to dissipate. Thrown all together, one can sense a kind of theatrical alchemy that might have been possible if given more time.
The mystery ends with a satisfying enough twist, hinted at throughout but not entirely predictable. The real protagonist and heroine, Stalker gets her triumphant epiphany, though the men around her barely recognize her brilliance. For a movie about the most successful woman writer of all time, there sure are a lot of brash, confident men being told what to do by one rule-following woman. If the play’s the thing, someone should have read it more closely.
“See How They Run” opens in theaters on September 16, 2022.
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