a critiQal film review The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: While visiting his brother (Gallagher) in London, Wallace Ritchie (Murray) gets a ticket for an audience participation game called the "Theater of Life", then gets involved in a case of mistaken identity. As an international plot unravels around him, he thinks it's all part of the act.

645 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 13s)

Bill Murray, the king of 80’s comedies, kind of disappeared for a while in the 90’s, popping up in less memorable roles (his fun turn in Groundhog Day (1993) was about it). He reappeared with a splash in Charlie’s Angels (2000) in 2000. One of those appearances in the 90’s that we had missed was in The Man Who Knew Too Little, now available on NetFlix®.

Would Bill Murray be able to bring the funny once more, or was The Man Who Knew Too Little something we should have avoided?

When he’s funny, Bill Murray can’t be stopped. Whether he’s a ghost-busting loon in Ghostbusters (1984) or even sidekick Bosley in Charlie’s Angels (2000), he’s a highlight on the screen whenever he’s in the mode. When he’s off, he gets quickly irritating (see What About Bob? or Osmosis Jones (2001)).

Thankfully, he’s spot on once again here, goofing his way through sequence after sequence without a clue. He has a knack for playing roles that don’t exactly fit into the leading man status quo (lecherous scientist, etc.), and again bumbles his way hilariously through The Man Who Knew Too Little as the idiot brother mistaken as an international hitman.

Peter Gallagher is also well-cast as the buttoned-up older brother whose only wish is to pawn off Murray on someone else so he can keep climbing the corporate ladder with the tried-and-true dinner host gig. He’s rather typecast these days with this type of role, but still seems to revel in it even after years of playing the same type of character over and over.

A very much slimmed-down Alfred Molina also pops up in The Man Who Knew Too Little. As usual, the villain role at first doesn’t seem to be the right fit, but Molina molds it as he goes, turning in a performance that catches the viewer’s eye. He’s never truly evil, just misguided, and a villain viewers wouldn’t normally root against. Still, Molina seems to give viewers the okay, wanting them to root against his somewhat tragic figure, almost as if to say he appreciates the sentiment but understands that the viewer feels the need to root for the hero.

While the story starts out rather convoluted (a TV show called “Theater of Life” involves ordinary citizens in it’s extraordinary fantasy tales), once viewer lets the idea of such a scheme to take root, the rest of the film flows smoothly together. And since other films have incorporated the same sort of idea, it’s not as big of a first step as one might imagine.

Once the scenario gets under way, and Murray’s naive character ends up as part of a real-life plot, Murray really swings into action, delivering a character so inept he doesn’t grasp the idea he is actually in real danger, not the “Theater of Life” his brother signed him up for. This naivety is both silly and sweet, able to make the viewer a chuckle over the character’s antics, even while he plays up (and pokes fun at) his supposed innocence of all Americans (a point made clear when even his level-headed brother doesn’t quite grasp the idea the whole thing isn’t a game for quite some time – and he’s supposed to be the smart American of the bunch!).

A film that allows viewers to laugh even while subtly poking fun at them runs a thin line between jesting with the viewer and offending them, but The Man Who Knew Too Little does a good job of staying on the correct side of that line, giving the viewer the freedom to laugh to their heart’s content.

Sure, eventually the naivety turns to sheer stupidity and the film peters out during a ridiculous epilogue that should have been cut out entirely, but for most of it, Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little is funny, plain and simple though it may be.

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