WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Aptly-named Blockbuster employee ‘Wally’ Ritchie comes to England to visit his brother, but fearing he may disrupt an important dinner party, the brother arranges for him to spend the night with an interactive, improvisational theatre experience that takes place on the streets of London. However, Wally unknowingly stumbles into a deadly plot between bosses of MI5 and the KGB to prolong the Cold War and keep them all in a job.
Although The Man Who Knew Too Little is by no means a one-joke film, your enjoyment of it is likely to be influenced by how willing you are to accept the film’s central joke, that Wally (Bill Murray) takes everything that happens around him to be an act for his benefit, whilst everyone else is involved in deadly espionage. The title is an obvious nod to Hitchcock, but the animated titles are equally reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series and Wally’s accidental genius is similar to that of Clouseau.
The script deals with Wally’s ignorance very well. He has absolutely no concept of being in danger, so his cool reactions unsettle the powers that be at MI5 and the KGB.
Importantly, what Murray says whilst ‘acting’ and how people react to him never feels forced. The plot moves along at a decent pace and maintains a decent gag rate throughout, although a few jokes go over the top (I’m thinking of the geriatric bondage) and the depiction of Russians by British actors is very stereotyped. The plethora of familiar British faces used to play Brits and Russians occasionally makes the film feel like an extended sit-com episode, but thankfully Bill Murray has the star quality to lift the material whenever he is on-screen.
Those used to Murray’s po-faced, occasionally downright depressed performances in films such as Lost in Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums will find him positively delirious here. Watching Murray bumble happily through Wally’s various scrapes is a little unsettling, but he delivers his role with a nonchalance that other comic leads such as Steve Martin or Leslie Nielsen would have struggled to match. Peter Gallagher is competent as his exasperated brother Jimmy, whilst Richard Wilson and Nicholas Woodeson are entertainingly baffled as the secret agency heads.
Joanne Whalley is given little to do but, since the script demands it, falls in love with Murray’s klutz to the best of her ability. Perhaps she looks confused because her comic role – the mistress of a cabinet minister – is oddly similar to the straight role she played in Scandal. Though she is fine, the payoff to the film (that they end up together should surprise nobody) takes the audience for granted, and the final scene feels improvised – not, in this instance, a term of praise.
With its Anglo-American slant, The Man Who Knew Too Little seeks to plough the same furrow as A Fish Called Wanda; and while this film never even threatens to reach those heights, it’s a cute comedy with a brave conceit and lively performances. And whilst only the Russian dance music is likely to stay with you after the film’s finished, you’re unlikely to ever be bored whilst it’s on.