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Gary M. Kramer

No mystery here: This whodunit flops

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan in the film "See How They Run" (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/20th Century Studios)

"See How They Run," starts out as a fleet comic mystery, but it quickly loses it fizz and turns into flat champagne. Set in London 1953, this film, directed by Tom George from a script by Mark Chappell, opens with a hard-boiled voiceover by Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) a Hollywood filmmaker who deconstructs the whodunit. Leo is considering making a screen version of a whodunit, "The Mousetrap," Agatha Christie's hit play that has just staged its 100th performance.

The film comes to life whenever the dead guy is on screen.

And it is at the celebratory party, where Leo meets with the business end of actor Dickie Attenborough's (Harris Dickinson) fists and lands in the cake Dame Agatha sent. Changing his clothes in the theater's costume room, Leo meets with a ski in the face, and then, as Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) observes, "It's all downhill from there." 

Alas, so too with this listless film, and it's not even 10 minutes in. But there is a dead body — with his tongue cut out, no less — and a large cast of suspects, which is the hallmark of any good whodunit, as Leo has explained. 

The setup is fine, and Brody, who is later seen in flashbacks, gives a loose, assured performance that manages to make his unlikeable character charming. The film comes to life whenever the dead guy is on screen. 

However, much of "See How They Run" features Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), a jaded cop who has little patience for Constable Stalker, a chatty newbie. In one scene, during a stakeout, Stoppard makes an excuse about having a dentist appointment to get a drink and get away from his partner. Viewers may be tempted to step out themselves. The film practically grinds to a halt at moments like this. 

Stoppard and Stalker investigate the murder by interviewing some of the theatrical suspects. These include the overrated, er, sorry, celebrated playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who had a contretemps with the deceased and did in fact utter words that quantify as a death threat. And there is the producer, John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who was footing Leo's hotel bill to avoid the filmmaker blackmailing him. Even the esteemed actor, Dickie Attenborough, gets a chat with the police, but is more interested in offering them tickets to see "The Mousetrap" than details about his fight with Leo at the party.

The film pays homage to "The Mousetrap," mimicking the play, or incorporating [Agatha] Christie into the action.

"See How They Run" is not bad because it follows the typical whodunit trajectory. It is bad because the characters make self-referential comments about the whodunit that is as tiresome as the hoary formula being mocked. That said, when Leo storyboards the end of his planned film version of "The Mousetrap" —  a wonderful sequence  —  it also provides obvious foreshadowing for the film's denouement, a word Mervyn huffily explains means ending not shoot-em-up.

Director Tom George also occasionally employs split screens for no real reason other than to provide two simultaneous points of view, but they fail to add much to the storytelling. The tension throughout the film is mild, even during a low-key "chase" sequence. The most imaginative bit is a surreal dream that Stoppard has, and it involves him not wearing pants. 

Adrien Brody and David Oyelowo in the film "See How They Run" (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/20th Century Studios)

But even when "See How They Run" folds in on itself, "because the play's the thing," as Stoppard surmises, and the film pays homage to "The Mousetrap," mimicking the play, or incorporating Christie into the action (Shirley Henderson plays the writer in one key scene), it feels hollow. The film is not really about anything despite containing motives like greed, adultery, and revenge. 

The characters hardly register as people, making it tough to get invested in the whodunit. Mostly, the suspects are types, and their idiosyncrasies — Mervyn's cousin Gio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is an amateur taxidermist — are neither interesting nor amusing; they just try too hard to be both. 

The slapstick in the film is also as unfunny as it is uninspired. When Stoppard is caught in the rain, Stalker warns him about catching a chill, leading to him doubling over sneezing the next day. There are other would-be comic moments like that just fall flat. 

The banter between Stoppard and Stalker creates much of the film's dead space because these scenes fail to move the thin plot forward nor do they develop the characters. The performances by both Rockwell and Ronan are mannered, and while that works in her favor — Ronan has various nice moments, like her reaction to nettle tea that Mervyn serves her — Rockwell is miscast, as if, like his character, he wants to be anywhere else. (Brody seems like he could have done something magical with the role if they had swapped parts.) 

The large supporting cast are largely forgettable, save the aforementioned Brody and the fabulous Oyelowo, because they get the best dialogue and deliver it smoothly, like silver-tongued salesmen. 

"See How They Run" certainly appreciates the very genre it is sending up, but like the eager Constable Stalker, it needs to deliver something more than enthusiasm.

"See How They Run" is in theaters Friday, Sept. 16. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

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