Oh, how the British must have watched Knives Out with jealousy. Time was, the U.K. used to turn out lighthearted murder mysteries like that in their sleep. Honestly, sometimes the results felt like they were doing that in their sleep, too, but then, they could also be smashing when the comedy and the plotting came together smoothly. The form fell out of fashion and was parodied in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound, which allowed the Americans to take it up with Rian Johnson’s sensational 2019 film (and with James Bond playing the lead role like he’d been released from prison, no less). See How They Run is this week’s British attempt to reclaim the form, with a top-of-the-line cast that only sharpens the disappointment of this retread.
The story takes place in 1953 in London, where Hollywood movie director Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) is at a West End theater to negotiate a deal to film Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap. After 1) tearing up the script written by the pompous screenwriter (David Oyelowo), 2) openly flirting with Richard Attenborough’s wife (Pearl Chanda) and exchanging punches with the star (Harris Dickinson), and 3) blackmailing the movie producer (Reece Shearsmith) over his own extramarital affair, Leo is bludgeoned to death backstage after a performance. Narrating from the grave, the director says, “It’s always the most unlikable character who gets bumped off.” Investigating the case is suggestively named, eternally hungover Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), an overeager Irish movie nerd before that term exists.
It’s very simple, really. The movie is neither funny enough to work as a comedy nor well-plotted enough to work as a mystery. The screenwriter character blasts cinematic flashbacks as “the product of a moribund imagination,” which cues a flashback, and the script doesn’t comment on the tropes of movie mysteries inventively. Stalker is deliberately written as someone who cracks lame jokes, a device that only works if the other characters come off as funny. The film is full of references to real-life bits of film history (Attenborough, Shepperton Studios, The African Queen), but these don’t connect the story to our pop culture in a meaningful way. Thousands of other movies have already covered the foibles of theatrical folk in more fruitful ways, and while there’s a germ of an interesting idea when Stoppard himself emerges as the prime suspect in Leo’s murder, it doesn’t pay off. Director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell are both on their first feature, having come over from British and American TV respectively, and this film doesn’t have the spark of creators viewing a genre with fresh eyes.
See How They Run is so determined to be light that no one comments on Stoppard almost killing people with his drunk driving, or on Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson) showing up and actually killing a bystander in an attempt to neutralize the murderer. At least Knives Out earned its comic tone. Any attempt to measure up to that will have to do better than this.
See How They Run
Starring Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan. Directed by Tom George. Written by Mark Chappell. Rated PG-13.