Murray plays a Des Moines, Iowa, Blockbuster Video manager who celebrates his own birthday with a trip to London to surprise his rich yuppie brother (Peter Gallagher). The brother is on the verge of an important dinner party with business associates, so he needs to get this socially inept man out of the house for the evening.
Gallagher and his wife arrange to treat Murray to the Theatre of Life, an improvisational audience-participation troupe that performs for, and with, an audience of one. Waiting next to a street-corner phone booth for the play to begin, Murray accepts a call intended for a real-life assassin, assumes this is his role in the Theatre of Life, and toddles off happily to follow the instructions.
Soon he's caught up in the car chases and gunfights of a real-life intrigue--some silliness about jump-starting the Cold War--in the company of a sexy femme fatale (Joanne Whalley). The gag is that because he takes the whole affair for an elaborate piece of performance art, he has no fear, and his skewed but gleeful attempts to act the part of an international man of mystery make him seem like a crazy genius to the real operatives.
The Man Who Knew Too Little could easily be dismissed by a fair number of critics and ignored by audiences, partly because it's far from a masterpiece, but also because true farce is way out of fashion in the movies. This is cinema's loss; TV has taken over the genre, and with enough wit and skill in some cases that plenty of discerning audience members may not feel any pressing need to find their comedy at the movies. The better episodes of Frasier and Ellen and Seinfeld maintain the rigorous and wonderfully satisfying art of circumstantial farce, which the movies have replaced with sophomoric spoofery of too-easy targets.
The intricately contrived plot of Man Who Knew is absurdly labored, and the execution is often heavy-footed. Yet I found myself appreciating the mere attempt at real invention, as opposed to the half-assed plotlessness of the spy send-up Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which got by only on Mike Myers' lovable performance and some amusing scenic and costume designs.
Screenwriters Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin at least try to rise to the demands of farce plotting. When Gallagher gives Murray a pair of expensive cigars with the promise that they'll smoke them together before midnight, we don't guess that Murray will later unwillingly dazzle a villain with his knowledge of the "two Ambassadors that are gonna be fired up." The film has many moments of such ingenuity, and they allow Murray to work his characteristic riffs within the context of a character.
Murray started his career as a master of the mocking put-on, a man who could sling bull so artfully that his very transparency became the joke. His harangues in his signature star vehicle Stripes were, in content, gibberish--mosaics of free-associated cliches. His brilliance was in showing how the force of personality could turn such malarkey into a facetious but persuasive kind of rhetoric. It's an American archetype--a snake-oil salesman who's selling himself.
This shtick gave Murray most of his early successes, but it couldn't last forever, and it's to Murray's credit that as he aged, he recognized that his bullshit must eventually start to stink. In both Scrooged and Groundhog Day, his most successful films of the last 10 years, he's played a veteran bull-slinger gone sour and mean and in need of reformation.
Even when experimenting with other kinds of roles--ill-advisedly with a dramatic lead in The Razor's Edge, more effectively as the fop Bunny Breckenridge in Ed Wood--he's given us moments of pure, elaborately casual Murray. On the point of being baptized in Ed Wood, he's asked if he accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, and with a shruggy, oh-all-right tone, he replies, "Sure."
The Man Who Knew Too Little allows him a new variation: As a yokel, sheepishly playing at playing it cool, Murray's bullshit seems peculiarly innocent. And portraying a middle-aged, fleshy-faced underachiever gives him a faint touch of poignancy to counterpoint the nuttiness.
Make no mistake, The Man Who Knew Too Little isn't as good as its star (though it's certainly far better than the woeful Larger Than Life, Murray's last vehicle). The director, Jon Amiel, doesn't build the pace to the hysterical fever pitch that the best farces attain, and the supporting cast isn't well-handled. Actors like Gallagher and Alfred Molina would have done better to play it straighter--indeed, the more seriously the rest of the film was played, the funnier Murray's performance would have come off.
Whalley's role is intended to send up her turn as Christine Keeler in Scandal. As has often been the case throughout her career, her function here is mostly decorative, but she has a charming moment: Listening to Murray prattle on nonsensically during a car chase, she giggles so genuinely that it seems like he's cracking up the actress, not the character. Those of us who love Murray's comedy can sympathize.
The Man Who Knew Too Little
Directed by Jon Amiel; with Bill Murray.