25 Years Later, The Man Who Knew Too Little Is a Ridiculous Yet Entertaining Relic of Its TimeComedy Features Bill Murray
Both Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1956 remake, specifically) and Jon Amiel’s The Man Who Knew Too Little feature memorable performances during their climaxes. In the former, Doris Day, playing a mother whose child has been kidnapped, loudly sings the Academy Award-winning song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” so her son can follow her voice to safety; Bill Murray joins in a traditional Russian dance in the latter, carelessly throwing around a bomb disguised as a matryoshka doll.
Besides an assassination plot and the London setting, that’s where the similarities between the two films end. The spy comedy, which hit theaters 25 years ago today, is actually based on Robert Farrar’s novel Watch That Man. Bill Murray plays Wallace Ritchie, a hapless American who decides to surprise-visit his brother James (Peter Gallagher) in London to celebrate his birthday. James is far too busy with his high-powered finance job, so he sends his brother off to participate in an interactive play called the Theatre of Life. However, Wallace unwittingly finds himself in the middle of a very real plot to reignite the Cold War. He acts far braver than he usually would as a mild-mannered Blockbuster clerk; his cluelessness about the danger surrounding him is probably his biggest asset. In the process, he meets an escort named Lori (Joanne Whalley), who’s knowingly embroiled in the political machinations and, of course, falls for Wallace.
The Man Who Knew Too Little was released at a strange time in Murray’s career. He was waning from his leading man days, where he’d play the devil-may-care Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1983) and the 1989 sequel, or the arrogant weatherman Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993). The movie came out just before Murray became Wes Anderson’s favorite regular, starting with Rushmore in 1998, or his world-weary turn in Lost in Translation. It was a transitional period, and Murray’s schtick doesn’t quite work in the role of Wallace, who’s supposed to be oblivious and a touch naive (despite this obviously skewing close to his titular part in What About Bob?). However, Murray comes across as too cynical and knowing, either never goofy enough for the bit or going broad in moments that don’t feel earned. Everyone else around him is playing it straight and committing, while his efforts feel half-hearted.
The film was both a critical and financial flop (it lost nearly $7 million), with Roger Ebert asserting that Murray has little or nothing to “push against” and that “all of the other characters are carefully tailored to fit precisely into the requirements of his misunderstanding, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” And it’s true that every coincidence slides together perfectly, but there are farces where that sort of comedic serendipity is acceptable because it’s just funny enough—think of pretty much any mountain of misunderstandings in a Frasier episode. A different star, someone who isn’t a “reactor,” as Ebert dubs Murray, could have injected more humor into the movie.
The rest of the cast put their all into it, keeping the film’s momentum going. Whalley does what she can with the part of Lori, despite the character being predictably underwritten. Sure, she’s meant to be the stereotypical femme fatale, but the writers give Lori some funny throwaway lines that show off Whalley’s versatility, whether she’s comparing handcuffs with a cop or telling an elderly woman how best to spank her husband. Alfred Molina is also a delight; he plays the oddly likable assassin Boris the Butcher, who would like to settle down and get to chopping up livestock rather than human beings. Molina plays dangerous well and he’s hilarious to boot. (One of the funnier moments in the movie has to be when Boris and his cronies wish Wallace a dead-pan “happy birthday.”) Gallagher is well cast as the handsome jackass of an older brother, all too ready to pawn Wallace off on some actors instead of indulging him for a few hours. Shout out to his glorious eyebrows—and Molina’s too, for that matter. The supporting cast in general do a lot of heavy lifting, with Richard Wilson regularly stealing scenes as the conniving warhawk Sir Roger.
Speaking of the warmongers, nothing dates the film today quite like the central premise. The event that Sir Roger and Russian intelligence agent Sergei (Nicholas Woodeson) plan to bomb, thus bringing back the Cold War, is a grand dinner with British and Russian ambassadors. The event’s center piece, featuring two toy beefeaters and a matryoshka doll standing over a sign reading “Friendship,” feels ridiculous now, when the UK has frozen over £18 billion worth of Russian oligarch’s assets (though this doesn’t include their properties). In short: a new Cold War was ripe fodder for a good ol’ joke back then, but is pretty much our reality now as Russia continues to attack Ukraine.
The world is far different than it was a quarter of a century ago, and The Man Who Knew Too Little isn’t exactly comedy canon, but there are enough entertaining performances in this farcical film to make it worth a rewatch.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.