The Man Who Knew Too Little

You have to be a Bill Murray fan, or in an especially generous mood, to find The Man Who Knew Too Little more than mildly amusing. I fit into both categories, and I think I chuckled maybe twice. Murray, a master of hostile irony, is sadly miscast here as Wallace, a wimpy Blockbuster Video clerk and failed actor who gets embroiled in an assassination plot. He does provide what few laughs there are, and he has a nice bit when he’s tied up and suffering an allergy attack, trying not to sneeze. But think back on Murray’s best roles. How many of them required him to play stupid? Demented, maybe — Carl the gopher-hating greenskeeper in Caddyshack comes to mind — but flat-out stupid, no.

Here, Murray has to be not only dumb but naïve. The only way Wallace prevails is by sheer idiotic luck. On his birthday, Wallace goes to London to visit his slick yuppie brother (Peter Gallagher), who signs Wallace up for a new interactive game called Theater of Life — in which the player has simulated adventures with a troupe of role-playing actors. Unlike Michael Douglas in The Game, Wallace eagerly submits to the experience, which, unbeknownst to him, is real: some actual spies think he’s a hit-man and order him to kill a woman (Joanne Whalley) who possesses some incriminating letters. Instead, he helps her stay a step ahead of her pursuers, while his “bosses” monitor him in bafflement.

Perhaps you’re starting to feel how boring the plot is. Wallace keeps thinking that all the intrigue is just part of the game, while the spies keep thinking he’s some fearsome assassin. When everyone on the screen is a moron, it’s hard to stay interested in a movie or to find it funny. Given Murray’s usual jaded persona — think of Stripes and Ghostbusters — wouldn’t it be funnier if he’d played a cynical wise-ass who didn’t take the danger seriously, going along with the “game” half-heartedly? Maybe, since Wallace works at Blockbuster, he might have seen all the Bond films on video and taken his cue from them. But Murray as an innocent dimwit really doesn’t do it for me.

Then we have the obligatory action scenes without the spin needed to make them funny; most of this stuff was done better in Grosse Pointe Blank. When Wallace is in a car chase and swerves to knock over a row of traffic cones, he says, “I’ve always wanted to do that.” So have I, and that was one of the two times I laughed. The other time was later in the same scene, at an overhead shot of Wallace’s car leading his pursuers around a roundabout. Otherwise I was glad I brought my watch and sorry I didn’t bring a magazine.

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