See How They Run
Adrien Brody and David Oyelowo in See How They Run. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh; courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

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The whodunit might be cinema’s sturdiest genre because even when it’s done badly, it’s still pretty good. No hard-earned emotionality is needed. Its pleasures are in seeing cinema deconstructed: watching the gears buzz and whir, and the machinations click into place, and not being able to guess the final twist even when we know a twist is coming. Such is the case with The Mousetrap, an Agatha Christie play that, despite being poorly regarded by its author, has run nearly uninterrupted in London for 70 years. Known mostly for its denouement in which the cast appeals directly to the audience not to spoil the ending for their friends, The Mousetrap is an average play that has inspired the average whodunit film See How They Run. It’s not great, maybe not even good, but I’d take a dozen more like it.

Set in 1952, when The Mousetrap was a new sensation, See How They Run opens on a murder set among the play’s cast, crew, and some film industry players who are in town to sign the contracts for the adaptation. A film about a play being turned into a film—there is plenty of postmodern winking therein and most of it lands with a thud. The would-be American director (Adrien Brody) shows his storyboards for what he imagines to be the film’s climactic scene, and wouldn’t you know See How They Run later re-creates it shot-for-shot? The haughty playwright (David Oyelowo) hates flashbacks, so the film gives him one in the middle of his big dramatic moment. Inspired by a play famous for its breaking of the fourth wall, these little jokes may be creatively justified, but meta-humor can’t be an end in itself, especially when so little of it is actually funny.

The film’s attempts to stay true to the spirit of The Mousetrap are admirable, but they don’t serve the cinematic experience. To wit: Known actors historically avoid the play, as it has become tradition for the author and the show itself to take center stage. Outside of Brody and Oyelowo, none of the suspects are played by known actors. They’re all quite adequate in their roles—particularly Harris Dickinson as the play’s smug star—but few are drawn with any smarts or specificity. The genre’s sharpest pleasure of watching an ensemble of A- and B-list actors be insulted and accused by a clever detective is simply missing.

So is the clever detective. Sam Rockwell is a curious choice for the role of the ruffled, alcoholic Inspector Stoppard (in another unnecessary bit of meta-foolery, named after playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote a postmodern parody of The Mousetrap), and not just because he’s American. The Oscar-winning actor adopts a passable brogue and nails a few pratfalls, but he mostly underplays both the drama and the comedy and ends up too much of a straight man for a film without a comic dynamo. Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), his young and comically enthusiastic partner, almost fits the bill. The duo never forge much chemistry, but Ronan’s predictably wholesome energy is at least refreshing. “Never jump to conclusions” is the oft-repeated, oft-broken advice she receives from Inspector Stoppard, and while Stalker’s youthful fervor for law enforcement provides the bulk of the film’s scant laughs, she is a little too mild to hold up as the film’s sole comic figure.

Veteran TV director Tom George directs, but is never able to inject any vitality into the proceedings, despite some serious effort. His frequent and arbitrary use of split screens is ill-advised and quickly becomes annoying, and while the film’s cheerful score and stately locations should make the film feel inviting, they never do. There’s a detached quality to it all, perhaps borne from its secondhand nature. It’s a film inspired by a play but not adapted from it, and it provokes in those unfamiliar with The Mousetrap the strong feeling that some of its better jokes are flying over their head. At least one hopes they are. As it stands, See How They Run leaves you feeling like you’ve just finished a puzzle you regret starting. Completing it brings you the satisfaction you were seeking, but you can’t wait to sweep the pieces back in the box and put it away forever. 

See How They Run opens in theaters on Sept. 16.