“It’s a whodunit. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
Adrien Brody’s Leo Köpernick says this in his narration that opens “See How They Run,” an often meta and self-aware whodunit within a whodunit bound for theaters this week.
He may be right, but that doesn’t mean the mildly enjoyable “See How They Run” has nothing to offer.
Unfortunately, though, its greatest strength is its table-setting prologue in which Leo — a Hollywood director hired to make a big-screen adaptation of mystery writer Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” already a long-running play in 1950s London and still going today — lays out the conventions of the genre. He finds it all underwhelming.
“But what do I know?” he says. “The Limeys lap it up.”
The prologue, as Leo suggests all in the genre do, ends with a murder: his — a fact we perhaps wouldn’t give away had the movie’s trailer not so gleefully done so.
Who may have wanted Leo dead? There are plenty of suspects, starting with the movie’s screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who clashed with him creatively.
Or could it have been movie producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith, “High-Rise”)? Famously, the rights holder to a “Mousetrap” adaptation cannot make a movie until six months after the play closes. Might a backstage murder bring a final lowering of the curtain?
That’s just the tip of the persons-of-interest iceberg for the Scotland Yard detectives on the case, Sam Rockwell’s grizzled, cynical Inspector Stoppard and the enthusiastic-but-inexperienced Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). Other key players include actor Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, “Where the Crawdads Sing”), who, like Woolf, is based on a real person; Dickie’s wife, Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda, “I May Destroy You”), who, like him, is in “The Mousetrap” cast; Dennis (Charlie Cooper, “This Country”), a particularly tall usher who’s never far from the action; and Petula “Choo” Spencer (Ruth Wilson, “His Dark Materials”), who runs the theatrical production.
More characters will be introduced late in the affair, as the twists and turns take characters who have survived to that point to a noteworthy countryside estate on a sensationally snowy night.
Written, more or less adequately, by Mark Chappell (“Flaked”) and helmed by Tom George (“This Country”) — who’s making his feature directorial debut and employs just the right amount of camera movement to keep things lively — “See How They Run” tries to get much of its crackle from the mismatched pair of Stoppard and Stalker. However, while Ronan gives it her all, the bright-eyed and eager Stalker — she’s prone to jumping to conclusions, ready to arrest someone for the murder at the most modest hint of guilt — isn’t really what the talented “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” star does best. And Rockwell, who can be quite good in certain roles (“Vice,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Richard Jewell”), doesn’t feel all that invested in this one. It’s a slightly sleepy performance.
On the other hand, Oyelowo (“Selma,” “Queen of Katwe”) is good in everything, so it’s not exactly surprising that he adds something to this menagerie.
The standout, though, is Brody (“Midnight in Paris,” “The French Dispatch”), so it’s concerning when, you know, his character dies so early into the proceedings. Fortunately, we get a reasonable serving of the feathers-ruffling Köpernick through flashbacks that fill in some of the gray areas of this mystery.
Know that solving it yourself will be difficult, disappointingly, as you likely won’t have all the needed information until a late-in-the-game revelation. On the plus side, other divulgences along the way do help to keep you invested in the case.
Filmed during the pandemic shutdown in West End theaters and hotels during the pandemic shutdown, when the fantastic locations otherwise likely wouldn’t be available, “See How They Run” is a perfectly pleasant passer of time but little more.
At the end of the increasingly bloody day, it isn’t likely to have the staying power of “The Mousetrap” — will that thing EVER close for good? — and its famously secretive twist ending.
That said, this may be the closest thing you’ll get to a film adaptation of it for a while.
“See How They Run” is rated PG-13 for some violence/bloody images and a sexual reference. Runtime: 1 hour, 38 minutes.