See How They Run, a murder mystery set in 1950s London, is a little too self-assured. Its opening monologue complains that murder mysteries are too samey: “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” But this one? This one is different, see; it knows it’s too samey. It’s got layers on layers of self-reference—the victim is the director of a film adaptation of The Mousetrap, an Agatha Christie murder mystery based on true events. How meta and subversive of me, says See How They Run.
Before long, it’s clear that the movie’s brand of satire is “point out the overdone thing we’re doing,” which isn’t particularly funny or insightful. In one scene, following a series of flashbacks, the screenwriter of the Mousetrap adaptation explains his distaste for flashbacks, remarking that they’re just as bad as cutting to three weeks later. I’ll give you zero guesses as to what happens next. That lazy obviousness doesn’t end with the film’s satire. As a sendup, it’s anemic; as an imitation, it’s pale.
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Given its smarmy remarks that it’s not like other whodunits, you’d expect the film to at least nail the basics, but it flounders from the ground up. Sam Rockwell’s inspector, half of a detective duo with Saoirse Ronan constable, is a confoundingly boring protagonist. He’s such a non-character that not even Rockwell can bring him to life. Oscillating tediously between tired, world-weary, and—if a third thing could be said about him—responsive to stimuli, the inspector doesn’t have much of an arc. He has flaws that mildly annoy some characters, but there’s not enough resolution to, trouble with, or jokes about those flaws to make them feel anything but stapled on. Ronan’s character is just as thin, but her bumbling sidekick routine is at least amusing. Together, they’re half a compelling protagonist.
At more of an amble than a run, the film plods through a slipshod, stop-start structure that rarely gets going. After the winking opening monologue, it presents a series of obvious red herrings with no clues to distract from, going through the detective motions before contriving its way into a reveal without buildup or precedent. It shows most of its cards too early and pulls the final one from a place indiscernible until that very moment. In other words, the murder mystery isn’t mysterious—it’s a whodunit that doesn’t beg the question of who did it. Its perfunctory flourishes don’t mesh. The same could be said of its style: lots of split screen and stagey wide shots that change up the viewing experience without augmenting the mood.
The screenplay, though workmanlike and technically effective, just isn’t fun enough to stitch the film together. Too many exchanges move at a languid comic pace, imploring through awkward silence for a tighter, funnier edit. Trailers for the film, which move with much lighter feet, realize its potential more fully. At feature length, you’ll at least have time to take in the 50s production design, a consistent highlight in an inconsistent land.
Like Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen before it, See How They Run is a metafictional genre playground that needs a more considered movie inside it. Little is overtly awful, but at less than the sum of its below-average parts, it can be a bit of a miserable sit.