The Man Who Knew Too Little

The Man Who Knew Too Little. Warner Bros. Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I can sum up everything that makes me look forward to this movie in one sentence: Bill Murray in a mistaken identity crime ring farce. Unfortunately, that probably makes the rest of this leader redundant.

Thinking deeper about what I expect though, I realize there’s little more than minor details separating this from other mistaken identity farces. That makes me less interested, but it should still be a good time with good jokes. Not every movie has to be a special snowflake to be enjoyable.

After watching the movie:

Wallace Ritchie decides to come to London for a surprise visit to his brother James on his own birthday, but James is hosting an important dinner meeting that night. In order to get Wallace out of the way for the evening, James gives him a ticket to an immersive theater experience. Unfortunately, while waiting for the phone call that starts the show, Wallace intercepts a call meant for an assassin, and so gets involved with an international terrorist plot to restart the Cold War, the whole time believing it’s all part of the show, playing the role of secret agent everyone expects him to, and loving every minute of it.

I had an entirely different scenario in mind when anticipating this film. I was picturing Bill Murray stuffed in a van with a bunch of bank robbers who’ve decided to let him believe it’s all an act in order to get his cooperation in their heist. This is much more enjoyable, since this approach allows Wallace to make most of his own “plot twists,” and nobody who has any influence on events has the whole picture, allowing the bad guys to be scared of the giddily grinning loose cannon foiling their plans.

With any misconception plot, there’s a danger of uncomfortably awkward scenes, which I’m not a fan of. Except for a few in the beginning, this film did a good job of staying away from that trap. What I like least is when people can’t make sense of others, and that mainly came into play when the assassin stepped into the actual show. I would have preferred to see him decide he didn’t have time to intervene in the staged argument, or get swept along into it allowing for ridiculous cutaways of the show happening around the stonefaced killer, but that doesn’t fit with the tone of the film. What does happen is the actors struggle to get him to participate, but he doesn’t react until one of them pulls out a gun, wherupon he shoots that actor. Even then, the discomfort of the “play along already” moment is kept relatively brief.

I’m pleased that the story doesn’t rely on dumb luck much to keep the wheels greased. There’s only two or three moments that are caused by nothing but random chance, and it’s still pretty believable. Maybe that’s because it’s not played for laughs, but just happens as ought to be expected.

This is a much more subdued movie than I expected. The humor isn’t forced, it just builds on itself into a ridiculous but plausible circumstance. It’s entertaining and strongly written. There’s nothing big for the actors to get their teeth in, but their timing is perfect. It’s not a great one for the annals of history, but it’s exactly what it sets out to be.


Watch this movie: and decide for yourself if alternate reality theater is something you’d be interested in.

Don’t watch this movie: and come away with the idea that anyone can act.

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