A film seemingly designed to be released in between Knives Out films, See How They Run (2022) is a star-studded period comedy that feels perfect for a Sunday matinee, but perhaps not for an opening night. The film includes wonderful comedic turns from some of our best performers with Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, Adrien Brody, and David Oyelowo.
The 1950s, London West-End set farce, centred around the longest-running ever show, the murder mystery The Mousetrap, which has its run abruptly ended when the director (Brody) of a planned filmed version of the play is murdered. If you think that’s a rather meta plot for a film, that’s just scratching the surface of the meta-textual humour that is the engine of Mark Chappell’s script.
It’s the similar meta, postmodern humour that can be seen more and more often in film and television, usually with tiring results. For every example of 2016’s Fleabag (the best modern use of meta humour), there are your She-Hulk’s (2022) and Deadpool’s (2016). These latter shows and films use their meta humour to address the script’s flaws whilst never truly experimenting with its form. This is a trend that may be the prevailing screenwriting quirk of the past 15 years and that is quite an upsetting thought. See How They Run at least bakes its meta humour into its conceit, as a whodunit inside of a play version of a whodunit, with the ambitions of being adapted into a film.
See How They Run laces in the real aspects of the era (Richard Attenborough is the lead in the play, performed by Harris Dickinson), with the fictional characters of Constable Stalker (Ronan) and Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell, named after the esteemed playwright).
The ensemble is clearly delighted to be involved in this farcical production, something that is palpable in every scene, especially by Ronan who is having a blast with the script. Brody appears to have walked directly off the set of The French Dispatch (2021) and into this film, with the same energy and acerbic tone that makes his inevitable demise all the more understandable.
The screenplay is full of wonderfully funny moments, especially when it choses a more jovial whimsy tone over caustic, a style that doesn’t not fit into the rest of the film. There is an inconsistency to the tone and filmmaking style, like the film is being pulled apart at the seams. For as many funny sequences the filmmakers throw at you, there is an equal amount of dead air which creates an unevenness to the film. This dead air is also extended to the frame, with a curious choice made to extend the headroom on most shots. With a film scattered with Wes Anderson frame homages, these choices are jarring and dislocate the characters from their environments more than they are welcomed into them.
The film is straining itself in its clever pursuits, which is no better illustrated than having all the characters coalesce in Agatha Christie’s house for the inevitable final act reveal. Many jokes land, but then consistently go a step further to wink at its audience. Too often the film sprints over the line of meta-commentary most films toe over. There is a screenwriting expression “hanging a lantern” which refers to illuminating a flaw in a story for the audience in an attempt to disguise it. In the case of See How They Run, stadium floodlights are used in every room.
See How They Run is in theatres nationwide now.