The Man Who Knew Too Little

It's a good thing he didn't know too much, or we might still be sitting in the cinema watching this nonsense.

Know what it's like when your brother shows up for an unexpected visit? Especially if this should happen to be the evening you've planned a high-profile business dinner at home which is meant to be the next crucial step on the ladder determining your career. The brother is exactly what you don't need, especially when it's someone like Wallace Ritchie (Bill Murray), a video store clerk from Iowa. Sibling James (Peter Gallagher), with an assisting prod from wife Barbara (Anna Chancellor), has the clever idea of getting a ticket to the "Theater of Life" performance now running in the city and dumping the dud for the evening. This theater group gives participatory experimental performances which demand that visitors become part of the show. Sooner than you can say "psychodrama," a telephone call intended to give instructions to a killer, but mistaken for a set of instructions to start the performance, followed by a second phone call, to the same booth, intended to give instructions to start off the performance, but mistaken to be directives for murder, result in the death of an actor from the company and the establishment of Wallace among the criminal circuit as a notorious hit man. Mr. Ritchie, however, continues onward throughout the evening (managing, long the way, to disturb his brother's dinner party twice) amazed by how lifelike the show is. If you think this sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, you wouldn't believe how the plot continues. I, however, will not the one to tell it to you, since it would be, at best, a waste of time.

Director Mark Tarlov and producer Jon Amiel believe that the main character of the film has overtones of Chauncey Gardiner in "Being There". This Hal Ashby/Peter Sellers classic may come to mind during the endless events and circumstances that take control of Wayne Ritchie's life during what seems to be an interminable evening, but the connection ends there. Why? Simply because "Being There" was a brilliant comedy written by a craftsman with a dark vision of the world and directed masterfully by a powerful hand. Tarlov and Amiel, on the other hand, both share a great admiration for Danny Kaye moves, and this influence has left a much stronger imprint on this work. Director Amiel says, "Comedy is very often best left to the actors playing the scene, and I like to treat the script as a springboard for whatever energy they can use to bring the story to life." The proof of the pudding is in the puddle.

Bill Murray is (how can I put this best?) Bill Murray. At least, in the present offering, he is once again showing his special aptitude for comedic effect and, thankfully, not exploring his qualities as a dramatic actor (save us, please, from such unforgettable tribulations as "The Razor's Edge" or "Mad Dogs and Glory"), but not even the man from Ghostbusters" or "Groundhog Day" can solve the riddle of the man who knew too little. Joanne Whalley looks as cute sporting her maid's apron as she did in her uniform as Nurse Mills and I shall never forget her in "The Singing Detective". Peter Gallagher was clever enough to keep the one-dimensional character of the brother limited in screen time. The versatile Richard Wilson breezes his way through the role of the British Sir Roger Daggenhurst and must have laughed all the way to the bank. The same goes for Alfred Molina as the dangerous, erratic, and funny Russian hit man, Boris.

The title would lead one to believe that the makers wish to create a plot line that parodies elements in Hitchcock's oeuvre. I wonder how the master of mystery would take this presumption. There is, however, an early film (made on a shoestring budget) directed by Brian De Palma titled "Greetings" which stars Robert De Niro in his film debut, that opened in 1968 at New York's Bleecker St. Theater. It contains a "theater-of-life" sequence dealing with racial politics which shows a startling performance inside a Greenwich Village building which is supposedly enjoying favor and word-of-mouth publicity from the elite 60's "in crowd". During the performance within the film, some of the visitors unexpectedly get violently attacked and raped. (Talk about realistic performances!) As far as impact, humor, and craft go, those few minutes of film from three decades ago surpass any effect included in this confused and muddled mass posing as a comedy.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett