See How They Run

I think I liked See How They Run even more because I didn't like Kenneth Branagh's Death on the Nile earlier this year. The film mocks the style of movies based on Agatha Christie murder mysteries, yet I kept noticing how it executed the formula so much better than that February release. The key to good genre spoofery is understanding precisely how the formula works in order to take it apart and put it back together. Director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell do, leading to a zippy, funny whodunit.

The setting is London’s West End during the 1950s. A stage production of Christie's The Mousetrap is drawing packed houses. A plan is underway to turn it into a Hollywood movie, but someone has just knocked off the abrasive director, Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody). A drunken, weary detective, Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), is assigned to investigate, with the help of naïve-yet-spunky Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). It doesn't take long to discover that there are plenty of people with reasons to want him dead.

Could the killer be pretentious playwright Mervyn Crocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who objected to Köpernick's proposed story changes? Or was it Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), the theater owner who may not want the diminished crowds a screen adaptation might cause? Or could it possibly have been leading man Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who openly brawled with Köpernick at an afterparty? Oh wait, he's a real person -- Attenborough appeared in Jurassic Park and directed Gandhi -- who apparently never murdered anyone, so certainly they wouldn't make him the killer, right? Or would they?

The joy in See How They Run isn't so much learning who the culprit is, it's watching Stoppard and Stalker interact with the suspects. Each character is sharply drawn, with individual quirks. The big joke is that Stoppard barely cares. He just wants to wrap up the investigation and move on. Stalker, on the other hand, recognizes how eccentric these show business folks are and is curious to figure out how the pieces fit together. If it's fun watching the law enforcement clash with the theater people, even more fun is generated from watching them clash with one other. Rockwell and Ronan build a riotous chemistry together, with her chipper eagerness hysterically clashing with his comedic apathy. In fact, Ronan walks off with the picture. She's hilarious, and I hope she does more comedy in the future.

See How They Run has a good time coming up with various motives for the characters, using flashbacks to show their tormented histories with Köpernick, and making viewers guess and second-guess their suspicions. All of this is done in service of good-natured poking at the whodunit conventions. Everything is a mirror version or a twist on what happens in The Mousetrap. We see snatches of the show, then later on, an event happens to humorously mimic it. The best set piece finds a real murder being carried out inside the theater the same way a fake murder is taking place on the stage simultaneously. Amusement also comes from Köpernick laying out a few basic rules of the format at the beginning, every one of which proceeds to occur.

When the murderer is finally revealed – in a remote location where the characters have been convened, of course – their motive makes wicked sense. See How They Run is admittedly a lark, as send-ups tend to be. Wonderful performances across the board and sharp writing make it a very amusing lark, full of laughs and the kind of madcap energy that is hard to resist.

out of four

See How They Run is rated PG-13 for some violence/bloody images and a sexual reference. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.