I have to admit I’m a Bill Murray fan–but I wasn’t always. It wasn’t until I saw Rushmore that it first donned on me that Murray is a tremendously gifted comic actor. Previously I’d only seen him in the same kind of goofy roles he played in Ghostbusters, Kingpin, Caddyshack, etc., but in Rushmore he wowed me in an entirely different kind of role. He was quiet and subtle and his performance was emotional, yet he was still very funny…in a very different way. I then went back and watched Groundhog Day again and was amazed at what a magnificent performance I hadn’t noticed before. The emotion and subtlety were there, but felt previously hidden behind my perception of Murray as just a silly guy. That day I became a solid Bill Murray fan and through watching his subsequent more “serious” works (Lost in Translation) I’ve gained a great respect for even his “silly” performances (The Man Who Knew Too Little).
The Man Who Knew Too Little, the last of Murray’s “goofy” performances, is a very silly film and also a quite funny one if you’re up for it. What do I mean by that? The movie reminded me a lot of the scene in The Pink Panther Strikes Again when Inspector Clouseau totally unknowingly foils all the world’s top assassins at Oktoberfest. If that, stretched out over the course of an entire feature-length film, sounds humorous to you, you are “up for it.” The Man Who Knew Too Little is a light, fun, silly movie that’s perfect fodder for a lazy weekend afternoon viewing.
Murray plays Wally Ritchie, an American who “works in the movie business” (at a Blockbuster Video in Iowa), who goes to visit his brother, Jimmy, in England to celebrate his birthday with him. Unfortunately, his brother (Peter Gallagher) has some very important businesspeople coming over to his house for dinner the night birthday boy Wally unexpectedly shows up. Since Wally probably won’t sit well with the others, Jimmy gives Wally a spur-of-the-moment birthday gift that will keep him out of the house for the evening. Knowing that Wally always wanted to be an actor, he signs him up for an experimental form of theater called “Theater of Life” wherein regular people voluntarily join up with actors out in the streets for an adventure that is meant to feel totally real. (In many ways, The Man Who Knew Too Little acts like an unofficial parody of David Fincher’s The Game, though, given the fact that The Game wasn’t particularly big at the box office and The Man Who Knew Too Little was released a mere two months later, I have to assume their similarities are just coincidental.) Wally’s told that he should answer a certain payphone and will receive his instructions and character information to begin his acting adventure. Of course, Wally answers the phone early and receives instructions meant for a real secret agent and wacky hijinks ensue.
I quite enjoy wacky hijinks when they’re done well, and, for the most part, the hijinks in The Man Who Knew Too Little are. Of course there are some misfires and a few times the comedy spirals down to the Home Alone unbelievable slapstick level, but I did laugh quite a bit overall. There are some very smart, funny moments, like when Wally breaks into a house that’s already been ransacked by an assassin and he asks if he and the others will have to stay late to “clean up” afterwards. Bill Murray’s comic brilliance keeps the movie afloat when it dips a bit and grounds the unrealistic gags with a human touch. He is an absolute joy to watch in this film.
The Man Who Knew Too Little is a must-see for Murray fans. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see him in a role like this again after the success of Lost in Translation and his notable performances in Wes Anderson’s art house comedies. In a way, it’s a shame, but it’s also nice to see him go on to break out of his appointed mold and be very successful in less wacky, more dignified roles (like Robin Williams or a reverse Leslie Nielsen). I can’t wait to see him later this year in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
The ending is one of the weak spots in this film. So, does he understand now that it was all real or not? The ending seems unclear and poor either way. If he knows now, why is he being such a dick to the agents who want to recruit him? If he doesn’t know, he should. I mean, I can see how throughout the main crux of the film he could be in the dark as to what’s really going on, but after reading the article in the paper if he doesn’t know now then he must be a raging idiot of the Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne Dumb and Dumber variety, which the film hasn’t made him out to be until this point.