The core issue with comedy and whodunnit hybrid See How They Run is that it is both a bad comedy and a bad whodunnit. This 1950s set genre pastiche takes Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap (still running on the West End), as its centrepiece, the characters of the film are creatives involved with it (and beyond) and we soon have a whodunnit based around those behind a whodunnit. It is meta, you see. And, quite soon, it is frustratingly meta.
We start with an overbearing introduction that points out how overbearing it is. Adrien Brody narrates, playing an irritating film director, noting how all whodunnits are the same and pointing out structural tropes. The film then goes on to follow these structural tropes, but it drew attention to them, so that makes it fine. As long as you comment about being derivative or formulaic, you apparently don’t have to rise above it. Brody’s character is exceptionally irritating and, luckily, does soon die. This starts our whodunnit but Brody will still return in flashbacks (don’t worry, the film will have a character say that flashbacks are lazy and poor storytelling). The problem with the return of Brody’s director is that he isn’t irritating in an interesting way, he is just irritating. But so are the rest of the characters; in fact, Saoirse Ronan (who plays a police constable) is the only actor able to transcend the material and give a performance worth watching.
The writing is the issue, it is a poorly constructed mystery that actually doesn’t even cohere to the genre tropes it thinks it is deconstructing. There aren’t enough characters with plausible motives; the investigation is illogically plotted (ignoring key suspects periodically being one example. The audience is kept on the outside, the film creating misconceptions as opposed to laying out an actual mystery. The solution is utterly stupid and falls below a red herring that at least involved a compelling scene of investigative work. In the end, we sit and wait for the film to tell us who did it and how, which it hashes out awkwardly at the end. It also does this while engaging in an insulting impression of a beloved historical figure, so to speak.
But maybe the mystery is not the focus, this is a comedy after all. Well, the jokes are bad. Some of them maybe seem okay on the page, but the direction is flat and the intrusive score actively works against the film. A key issue is our actual Inspector, played by Sam Rockwell. He is a bumbling alcoholic, another seemingly knowing cliché, but really is just a charisma vacuum. Ronan plays his deputy, bringing energy and enthusiasm. He should be a foil but actually saps out the energy and enjoyment from scenes, bringing Ronan’s character down and not allowing the film to be fun. There are some clumsy flirtations with sincerity spurred on by his framing and then these are made incongruous by the film’s pastiche feel. It is just a bit of a mess, no aspect really working with anything else and the totality of the thing being rather unappealing.
The film’s aesthetic also grates. It is clearly an attempt to imitate Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) specifically. The casting alone signals at this, but the production design makes it clearer. It’s always a step below, though. An act of imitation that seems to work out, on the job, that being Wes Anderson is actually very difficult. It apes some of the shot choices or editing flourishes but pulls them off without an eye for intention or impact. It also gives up on this early on and ends up look rather prosaic for most of the film. The one thing it does do, and it keeps doing it, is use split-screen. At numerous points, a divider will appear and we will see one perspective on the left and another on the right (sometimes even more perspectives). At no point does it seemed earned and at no point is it not just distracting. In certain scenes, the elements presented in split-screen would actually fit in the same frame. Late on, several perspectives are doing different things at a key moment of tension. Here, inter-cutting would work: hopping viewpoints inherently creates tension. The film decides to use split-screen and shows them all at once. The result is a flattening of tension and is indicative of how little in this film works.
It is such a shame, because this should be fun. The whodunnit whodunnit; the mystery based around the mystery; the Grand Budapest meets Knives Out (2019) movie. Ultimately, this is an act of imitation that covers up its lack of ideas with flimsy meta commentary. There is very little internal appeal and the attempts at style fall flat. Saoirse Ronan, as always, is brilliant. It seems she can’t not be. So, go watch one of her many other brilliant films and avoid this one.