Spectacularly Silly Case File #178: The Man Who Knew Too Little

Spectacularly Silly Case File #178: The Man Who Knew Too Little

Hannah And Her Sisters has one of my favorite scenes in all of film. Woody Allen’s rudderless spiritual seeker goes to a movie theater in a desperate attempt to extricate himself from a suicidal depression. It saves his life. Allen goes into the theater a lost and directionless soul, but leaves it with his spirit renewed and his soul refreshed. The film that saves Allen’s life—a beautiful concept when you think about it—isn’t a portentous drama about the Holocaust or a soul-crushing Ingmar Bergman art film; it’s the spectacular silliness of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. How can Allen even think about plunging headfirst into the abyss after the brothers Marx have reminded him of life’s transcendent goofiness? 

There’s something strangely life-affirming about silly movies. They implicitly tell us that life is a lark, not a tragedy. There’s also something weirdly soothing about cinematic formulas. In a sick, sad, often unknowable world, they tell us that life has ironclad rules that persist from year to year and generation to generation. We may not know what the future might bring. We don’t know if we’ll hold onto our jobs or if house prices will rise or fall, but we know that Bruce Willis will always kill the bad guy and get the girl, and probably deliver some terse one-liners while he’s at it. We don’t always want to be confronted by cinema’s ability to reveal profound truths, fuck with our minds, or take us through a gauntlet of harrowing emotions; sometimes we just want to laugh or forget our troubles for 90 minutes or leer at attractive movie stars in exotic locales. 

Farce combines explosive, unapologetic silliness with a rigid adherence to formula that can be both liberating and constricting. At its best, farce combines life-affirming silliness with the soothing familiarity of formula. Sure, farces are inherently artificial. In construction and execution, they resemble elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions full of whirring, spinning parts moving in perfect unison more than the messiness of real life. But that’s not necessarily bad. 

Take The Man Who Knew Too Little, the second entry in what unexpectedly has become Bill Murray Mid-Career Crises Month here at My Year Of Flops Inc. (This was supposed to be carny month, but my DVD of Carny arrived too late. Look for that one early next year). There is not a single moment in the film that feels even remotely realistic, nor a solitary second of psychological depth or nuanced characterization. On the contrary, The Man Who Knew Too Little delights in its own artificiality. The supporting characters come straight from central casting. The acting is broad and cartoonish enough to embarrass a community theater. And even though the fate of the free world is at stake, nobody ever appears to be in any danger, least of all the protagonist. 

In his last live-action comedic starring role to date, Bill Murray plays a good-natured half-wit who dreamt of making it in show business as an actor before settling into a happily mundane existence as a Blockbuster clerk in Des Moines, Iowa. The film’s first scene establishes Murray as the ultimate Ugly American, a hick from the sticks who wants to “try the pudding that is made of meat,” “see the Queen riding a horse,” ride “one of those double-decker buses,” and “get a suit made” but “not have everyone think I’m a tourist.”

Like his character in What About Bob?, Murray has only the best of intentions; he’s a great guy, albeit oblivious to social cues. Yet he nevertheless manages to angry up the blood of everyone around him. In this first clip, for example, the customs officer Murray unwittingly torments somehow manages to remain polite while apparently attempting to murder Murray with his mind. 

Murray shows up in London unannounced on his birthday as a “surprise” for older brother Peter Gallagher, an uptight businessman worried that Murray will ruin an important dinner by being himself. So Gallagher decides to distract his brother by paying for him to experience something called “Theater Of Life,” an interactive theatrical sensation that’s kind of like what Michael Douglas went through in The Game, only much sillier. Due to a phone booth (remember those?) mix-up, Murray quickly finds himself immersed not in a harmless, pre-fabricated theatrical experience but in a genuinely deadly situation involving blackmail, treason, and an attempt to resurrect the Cold War by sabotaging a Russian-British solidarity dinner. 

Murray controls the fate of the universe, yet he never quite figures out that he’s stumbled into a genuine spy game, not a cheesy burlesque of one. The film’s single joke involves Murray stumbling his way through one danger-fraught scenario to another without ever realizing he’s in peril. In this scene, Murray freaks out a mugger played by a young Eddie Marsan, later of Happy Go Lucky and Hancock semi-fame.

The Man Who Knew Too Little’s central, surprisingly durable joke involves Murray unwittingly risking death at every turn yet emerging unscathed and oblivious. In that respect, Murray’s character suggests a cross between Inspector Gadget—a hapless boob who somehow seems to save the day in spite of himself—and Steve Carell on The Office, another genially oblivious half-wit who never seems to figure out that he’s gotten everything wrong. 

Murray consequently inhabits a starkly different reality than everyone else. In Murray’s world, he’s an American goofing his way through a really fun experimental-theater piece; in everyone else’s, he’s a deadly, ice-cold super-spy, a real-life James Bond cunningly disguised as a clueless video-store clerk from the Midwest. It’s a little like the old parable about the blind men and the elephant; Murray and everyone he comes into contact with can only see part of the picture and misjudge it accordingly. 

This leads everyone to start behaving with incredible stupidity, not just Murray. Joanne Whalley plays a femme fatale who misinterprets Murray’s nonchalant response to grave danger as crazed courage rather than ignorance; it’s a thankless role that doesn’t call for her to do much more than look good in a French maid outfit, but in a trifle like this, that’s not a bad skill to possess.

Whalley isn’t alone in having nothing to do. The Man Who Knew Too Little is a one-man show; everyone plays straight man to Murray’s shenanigans, even Alfred Molina, who’s wasted as a feared killer/butcher who’s sort of a flesh-and-blood Boris Badenov.

In The Man Who Knew Too Little, everyone seems to know they’re in a movie. They play big, fuzzy archetypes rather than characters: The Dangerous Woman, The Hired Killer, The Traitor. Little has a decidedly retro feel; it feels like a throwback to both the heyday of Cold War farces and the spate of James Bond knockoffs—many tongue-in-cheek and overtly comic—that filled theaters in the second half of the 1960s. 

As a one-man show, Little plays to Murray’s strengths. He has enormous fun inhabiting the fuzzy mind of a would-be actor and atrocious improviser; when Whalley cries, he exuberantly inquires, “How do you people do it? Do you poke yourself in the eye? Or are you thinking now, ‘My dog is dead?’” Murray has two modes here, both amusing: He’s affable and fascinated by everything as himself and offers a hilariously unconvincing machismo while trying to play the role of the sleek super-spy. 

Jon Amiel directed this indifferently received spy comedy, which is only intermittently funny by design; since everything other than Murray’s cluelessness is played straight, and feels relatively generic, Little is only funny when he’s onscreen. It’s as if Murray stumbled into a low-wattage spy movie and transformed it into a moderately amusing comedy through sheer force of will. 

The Man Who Knew Too Little doesn’t aspire to do anything more than wring some cheap laughs out of a preposterous premise. In that respect, its success is directly equivalent to its extremely modest ambition. It’s the kind of featherweight time-waster easy to watch on Comedy Central out of boredom and apathy, a late-night cable slot-plugger that’s less “good” than “good enough.” Sometimes, just sometimes, that’s all you really want or need.  

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success 

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