“See How They Run” is a good old-fashioned British whodunit, complete with enough fast-paced humor to warrant comparisons to Wes Anderson. And in fact, Adrien Brody and Saoirse Ronan from Anderson’s last release, “The French Dispatch,” play prominent roles in this picture. While very funny in parts, “See How They Run” director Tom George and screenwriter Mark Chappell falter in their relentless drive to beg for Agatha Christie comparisons.
Set in 1953, “See How They Run” begins with a prologue narrated by, we soon learn, deceased Hollywood director Leo Kopernick (Brody), visiting London to obtain the rights to make a film version of Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap.” Stage director Mervyn Cocker-Norris (a humorous David Oyelowo, playing against type) has no intention of allowing some outsider to change one iota of what he considers a brilliant play. Oyelowo is all high-fallutin’ pretentiousness, and Brody revels in creating the stereotyped crude American – although mercifully not with crude language.
Kopernick’s voice-over clues us in that he is no fan of formulaic Christie novels. His disdain for the murder of the least well-liked character, the assembly of the major cast members, or suspects, in the drawing room, the boozy, down-on-his-luck investigator, and finally the revelation of the killer, is amusing. And then we watch his narrative play out before us during the ensuing ninety minutes.
In “See How They Run,” the down-on-his-luck inspector is played by Sam Rockwell. Unsurprisingly, Inspector Stoppard is divorced; and yes, he has a comedically appropriate problem with booze. Ronan plays constable Stalker, an overeager detective wannabe who writes down everything, even facts Stoppard identifies as unimportant. Her desire to please is hilarious. Ronan steals ever scene she’s in, which is most of them. Without her (and to a lesser extent, Oyelowo), Chappell’s screenplay falls flat.
The problem is that Chappell and George don’t know whether they want to honor Agatha Christie or poke fun at her. And the result is a screenplay with so little direction that it ricochets back and forth between tones – gumshoe detective flick one minute and omniscient wink-wink farce the next. In this sense, “See How They Run” is derivative of Dan Aykroyd’s “Dragnet” satire. Or was that a praiseworthy film? Hard to say, in either case.
Contrast “See How They Run” (or “Dragnet,” for that matter) to Peter Bogdanovich’s comedy classic “What’s Up Doc?” It was an homage to the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s, yet it stood on its own as one of the funniest movies ever filmed – and still is, I might add. It is not necessary to have seen, or know anything about, “It Happened One Night” or “Bringing Up Baby” to thoroughly enjoy “What’s Up Doc?” What Bogdanovich did was make a new, modern-day film in the style of the screwball comedies of yesteryear. He didn’t make fun of them; he honored them. But “What’s Up Doc?” is its own story, with no inside jokes – unlike “See How They Run,” which has enough Christie one-liners thrown in to cause the casual viewer (and non-Christie aficionado) to wonder why certain people laugh at certain lines.
This style may work great if shown in a double feature with a Christie adaptation, such as Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” But by itself, it begs too much to be adored by Christie fans – at the expense of the rest of us. Why not just write and film a funny detective story? The Christie connection is more of a distraction than a comedic technique.
In this sense, “See How They Run” tries too hard for our affection. However, it is a funny little picture, and Saoirse Ronan proves she can handle comedy as well as drama. She’ll win an Oscar one day. Just not for this one.