Man Who Knew Too Little, The (1997)
Release Date: November 14th, 1997 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Jon Amiel Actors: Bill Murray, Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley, Alfred Molina, Richard Wilson, John Standing, Anna Chancellor
ill Murray is entertaining in just about everything he’s involved with. So, when “The Man Who Knew Too Little” starts out like a typical Bill Murray vehicle, it’s definitely not a bad thing. It’s essentially a role – and an entire movie – allowing Murray to exhibit his carefree range of humor, idiosyncrasies, and slapstick, though the project is unfortunately lacking when it comes to the development of a story. While marginally unique throughout, the conclusion becomes so unexpectedly ridiculous (or out-of-this-world) that the already fragile strings of realism (somewhat necessary for the spy plot) are abruptly, discordantly cut.
Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray) arrives in England just in time to meet his brother Jimmy (Peter Gallagher) for what he hopes will be a birthday celebration for himself. But due to the unplanned nature of Wallace’s visit, Jimmy already has dinner scheduled with corporate people. In an attempt to keep Wallace occupied for the evening, Jimmy buys him a night of improvisational theater called the “Theatre of Life,” in which a group of performers guide the player through a staged, fictional adventure dealing with real-life heroic situations.
The roleplaying is entirely improvised, providing Wallace with the means to navigate and shape his own thrilling experience. To start the game, he must simply answer a phone call that will give him a secret identity and a mission to accomplish. The problem arises when the hapless man answers the wrong phone call and is sucked into a genuine conspiracy plot, full of blackmail, a ticking bomb, assassins, and torture artists.
Coincidentally, “The Man Who Knew Too Little” was released just after David Fincher’s “The Game,” which features a serious version of the exact same plot. This comedic take is also an anti-Hitchcock picture, with the famous “wrong man” theme turned on its head. Mistaken identities, people, locations, words, and expressions abound in this farce of all things top-secret. Believing he’s in a fantasy game leads the unwitting hero into numerous, formulaic, identification error spoofs, while nearly all of the characters are twists on villains one would expect to find in a James Bond episode. From Alfred Molina’s “The Butcher” to the conspiring, gray-haired political traitors to a torturous German interrogator, Wallace, assuming the codename “Spencer,” thinks everything is a harmless act – and, like Bond, he manages to escape most unbelievably from every sticky situation, perfectly unscathed.
In the generic ploy to assassinate powerful bureaucratic leaders, there are several incredibly funny moments, most stemming from Murray’s nonchalant dialogue. “Come and get me copper!” he yells as he eludes the police that he believes are merely actors. “You really don’t care about money, do you?” inquires a less-than-sincere femme fatale, to which Spencer responds after saving a doll housing a live bomb instead of a sack of cash: “It’s not real – the doll was beautiful.” Perhaps the most ludicrous and humorous gag is the interpretive Russian dance that symbolizes birth to adulthood, which Spencer promptly crashes. But aside from all the fitting silliness that embellishes the storyline, the conclusion is an absolute mess. Perhaps there was no great way to end the film, but the option the screenwriters chose is utterly nonsensical and tragically destroys the viewers’ last impression of what could have been a highly entertaining – yet still typical – Bill Murray comedy.
– Mike Massie