Even in the best of his movies, like that clever play on deja vu, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray never quite escapes the role of sketch artist--a comic built for short attention spans whose TV shtick is never quite big enough for the big screen, whose caricatures never quite grow into characters.
Unfortunately, the aptly named The Man Who Knew Too Little is one of Murray's more dreadful movies, and his limitations have never seemed more obvious. To start with, this is strictly a one-joke caper: A bumbling American who has signed up for an evening of participatory theater in London gets mixed up instead with real-life foreign intrigue--and inadvertently becomes the hero. To make matters worse, the only thing really improvisational here seems to be the screenplay. Unless I miss my guess, any number of scenes were ad-libbed. The late Mr. Hitchcock, from whose canon the present title has been expropriated and corrupted, would be appalled. His idea of improvisation on the set was to adjust his hat.
Alas, poor Murray. He is one Wallace Ritchie, a video-store clerk from Des Moines who drops in unannounced on his expatriate yuppie-banker brother, James (Peter Gallagher), on the very night James is trying to close a major deal with a group of humorless Germans. To get him out of the way, James ships Wallace off to the interactive mystery troupe; five minutes later, Wallace is unwittingly embroiled in an actual conspiracy involving purloined letters, an assassination plot against a couple of foreign ambassadors, and a femme fatale (Joanne Whalley). We never know who's gunning for whom, or why, and neither does Wallace. Director Jon Amiel (Copycat, Tune in Tomorrow) simply lets Murray wing it as the buffoon who confounds all the dastardly plans of evil men, thinking all the while that he's playacting.
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Actually, that's just what Murray seems to be doing. His hijinks here include such ancient pieces of business as the man who converses with the corpse he doesn't believe is dead, the fool who accidentally coldcocks three or four bad guys in a row, and the wallflower who gets thrown into a troupe of dancers and has to improvise the steps. There's also a truth-serum scene so old it's got hair on it and a huge, glowering Russian called "Boris the Butcher" because...he owns a butcher shop.
In the end, Wallace foils the villains, gets the girl and winds up with the satchel of cash--all through no fault of his own. Caricature has prevailed again--through no fault of its own.
The Man Who Knew Too Little.
Screenplay by Robert Farrar, from his novel Watch That Man. Directed by Jon Amiel. With Bill Murray, Peter Gallagher and Joanne Whalley.