Published November 1, 1997
The Man Who Knew Too Little, directed by Jon Amiel, is for fans of the comedic style of Bill Murray who—as he does in such mediocre movies as Kingpin and What About Bob?—manages to wring what genuine comedy there is out comic situations so outlandish that they would bring a blush of shame to the cheek of Jerry Lewis. In this case, the situation offers us a kind of updated, Americanized version of the old Holy Fool motif so beloved of the Russians. This is to some extent a self-conscious rip-off, since there are a lot of Russians, though of the thuggish modern kind that the contemporary stereotype favors, in the picture. Murray plays Wally Ritchie, a clerk in a Blockbuster video store in Iowa, who travels as a tourist to London as a birthday treat to himself to visit, unannounced, his brother, Jimmy (Peter Gallagher), a yuppie banker.
The comic trajectory here would seem to be bound to take us straight to the disruption that this rubeish Wally (British slang for jerk or fool) must wreak on the well-ordered life of his prissy brother. The very casting of Gallagher, who always plays such parts, tells us that this is the direction in which the film is going. Only it doesn’t go there. Sure enough, Jimmy is having a dinner party for some stuffy German bankers that evening, but he foresees the chaos that must result from Wally’s joining them all at table and tries to forestall it in what looks like a foolproof manner. He buys Wally a ticket to something called “The Theatre of Life”—in which audience members are drawn into playing a part in a gritty street drama which actually takes place in the streets.
It would be tedious to go over all the details of how Wally becomes embroiled in a genuine international conspiracy of disgruntled cold warriors, but you will get the idea if I tell you that at no point in the proceedings does he realize that what he has got mixed up in taking place not in the Theatre of Life but in the theatre of life. This is both the strength and the weakness of the comic device. Philosophically it is intriguing so to blur the lines between playacting and reality. At one point, when the (real) police are trying to track down Wally as the man who, they think, killed one of the actors, they get a phone call from Jimmy. He is looking for Wally himself, and the cop in charge of the investigation at the Theatre of Life venue where the murder took place orders a young woman police constable to trace the call. When it ends he turns to her and asks her if she has traced it. “I’m an actor,” she replies bewilderedly.
But Wally has to be such a complete Wally not to understand that the bullets and the blood and the tart with the heart of gold (Joanne Whalley)—who naturally falls in love with him—and the police and the crooked politicians and the Russian thugs are all real, that the strain upon our credulity finally becomes fatiguing if not exhausting. The fact does not, it should be said, take away from a number of delightfully comic moments along the way to the film’s even more preposterous conclusion. Perhaps my favorite comes when Wally finds himself in what he persists in thinking a staged car chase with the police. As he bumps off a line of traffic cones, one after another, he says delightedly: “I’ve always wanted to do that.” Then we cut to the grim-faced cops who are chasing him: “I’ve always wanted to do that,” one says wistfully to the other. But I wonder how many except for die-hard Bill Murray fans will want to spend seven or eight bucks for the sake of such moments?