A more grown-up companion piece to “Austin Powers,” “The Man Who Knew Too Little” spoofs the cloak-and-dagger genre with a fair degree of wit but too much restraint. With a nifty premise about a naive American in London being mistaken for a spy by a bunch of Euros bent on reviving the good old days of Cold War skullduggery, this Bill Murray starrer scores a reasonable number of laughs, but its ultimate impact is pretty mild. Nicely packaged comedy should play well enough with audiences, but modest effort will have trouble standing up to the seasonal blockbusters at the B.O.
Visiting London for the first time, Des Moines Blockbuster store clerk Wallace Ritchie (Murray) pops in to surprise his wealthy brother James (Peter Gallagher) on the latter’s birthday. But James and his wife are about to host an important business dinner party where dufus brother might prove an embarrassment, so Wallace is given a ticket to the popular “Theater of Life,” a participatory diversion in which the customer is thrown in with a bunch of actors playing out high drama in real-life settings.
The evening always begins with a phone call specifying a place to meet, but, unbeknownst to Wallace, the call he takes at a designated phone booth is a “real” one that instantly lands him in a web of intrigue involving the minister of defense, an apparent high-priced call girl (Joanne Whalley), Russian thugs, some valuable “letters” and a plot to blow up the high-level participants in a peace treaty signing party that night.
Believing that it’s all a game, Wallace, a nondescript fellow in a suit and trenchcoat, treats every threat and dramatic situation as a joke, a posture that creates the impetus for nearly all the humor in Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin’s script. Queried as to whether he’s with the CIA or the Mafia, Wallace blurts out, “Both.” Faced with guns and murderous assassins, he sarcastically waves them off, confident in the knowledge that all the danger he faces is fabricated, that nothing is real.
In fact, the venal plotting going on around him is pretty farcical, as it hinges on a plot by veteran cold warriors from London and Moscow to scuttle a peace treaty (why one is necessary at this point is not addressed) by exploding a bomb contained in a little Russian doll that will be placed near the dignitaries at the signing dinner.
When the imagined threat posed by this unknown new secret agent becomes too great, assorted ghouls from the past, notably Boris the Butcher (Alfred Molina) and expert torturer Dr. Ludmilla Kropotkin (Geraldine James) are pulled out of mothballs to try to save the day for the old order.
Wallace blithely wiggles out of one tight spot after another, culminating in a major set piece in which the game role player dresses in traditional garb to take part in an athletic Russian dance at the peace celebration. Entire premise serves as a lightly effective illustration of the saying, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” with sometimes deadly consequences for those who take matters too seriously.
Murray’s insolent manner toward the overwrought spy masters and thugs sparks enough humor to keep the film kicking, and Jon Amiel’s direction is smooth. But the overall sense of restraint prevents matters from getting really wild and woolly. While much of the sophomoric comedy in “Austin Powers,” for example, fell flat, its sense of uninhibited lunacy created some memorably off-the-wall moments; by contrast, the tone here leans toward the overly sober and strait-laced.
Murray is, as usual, a highly engaging and low-key jokester, but he can’t get much going with Whalley, whose role as a mystery woman remains too mysterious to engage any interest. Her character is just along for the ride through most of the film, and instead of the expected spice and provocation, she provides only a non-starter relationship that creates too much down time.
Supporting players, notably Molina and Richard Wilson as Britain’s old-line spy master, attack their roles with relish, and production team, including lenser Robert Stevens and production designer Jim Clay, has provided the proceedings with a colorfully atmospheric look.