“You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all” is the self-aware line at the start of See How They Run, a retro, comic-toned murder mystery that knows you’ve seen other whodunits. British TV director Tom George makes his feature debut with a fizzy, winkingly clever script by Mark Chappell (TV’s Flaked), and while the meta context gets pushed pretty hard out of the gate, it’s done with so much affection and enthusiasm behind and in front of the camera that proves to be infectious. How can you resist a whodunit romp about a murder in a theater where a whodunit is playing?
It’s 1953 in London’s West End. Just as the theater company is about to celebrate their one-hundredth stage performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” a body turns up backstage. It belongs to boorish, blacklisted American director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, a hoot), who’s been hired to adapt the play into a motion picture. Jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) arrives to crack the case, and he’s joined (much to his dismay) by chatty, over-eager rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). He plans on showing her the ropes, but perhaps Stalker can teach him a thing or two, even as she writes everything down and jumps to conclusions.
Natch, everyone is a suspect! Did theater impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) do it? Or was it dandy playwright Melvyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), or even Melvyn’s macabre taxidermist “nephew” Gio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd)? Maybe it’s charming actor Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson). Or, could it be ruthless film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) and his side-piece secretary Ann (Pippa Bennett-Warner)?
The film practically throws itself under the bus, albeit all in good fun. Adrien Brody’s Leo Köpernick—our narrator from beyond the grave in tried-and-true noir fashion, much like Sunset Boulevard—calls “The Mousetrap” Agatha Christie’s whodunit “second-rate.” Based on the derivative nature of all whodunits, Köpernick even points out how they all start with an “interminable prologue” of introducing every character. Well into the film, David Oyelowo’s pretentious playwright/screenwriter character bemoans “three weeks later” subtitles and flashbacks when we get exactly that only moments later.
Sam Rockwell is the straight man but still finds amusement in world-weary Inspector Stoppard whose code for “going to the pub” is “going to the dentist.” Not always given the opportunity to perform light comedy, Saoirse Ronan is an adorably funny delight as Constable Stalker, a walking cinematic encyclopedia who speaks in puns and could go on about The African Queen. The spirited cast is all having an obvious ball, even if most of them only receive a single quirk or character trait apiece; Rockwell’s Stoppard and Ronan’s Stalker at least have lives outside the murder case. A bonus: the lovably helium-voiced Shirley Henderson is perfectly cast as the “popular mystery writer” herself.
Knowing all the tropes of whodunits in literature and motion pictures, the picture is too good-natured to ever come across as self-satisfied. Tom George’s confidently buoyant direction employs all sorts of stylistic choices for this material. His pacing bounces along, and his production designers nail the period with just enough artifice to fit the broader tone. See How They Run is an absolute lark, but it’s a fun lark that’s as light on its feet as a sneaky murderer.
Searchlight Pictures is releasing See How They Run (98 min.) in theaters on September 16, 2022.