One of the basic guidelines of improvisational comedy is known as "yes ... and," meaning that each performer must accept any information other performers provide (about relationships, locations, etc.) and then build on that foundation to move the scene forward (often by raising the stakes of the encounter).
The Man Who Knew Too Little is one big "yes ... and," a one-joke comedy as fluffy and enticing as meringue. Bill Murray's breezy performance, as a hapless video store clerk who's mistaken for an international spy, sets the mood: Don't think too much, just kick back and enjoy.
The film begins with the unexpected arrival of the decidedly lowbrow Wallace Ritchie (Murray) at the swanky London home of his social-climbing banker brother, James (Peter Gallagher), just before an important business dinner.
James quickly shuffles Wallace off to the "Theatre of Life," an interactive theater where actors guide participants through a scripted crime scenario in various locales. But Wallace mistakenly intercepts a telephone call meant for a killer (involved in an elaborate plot to jump-start the Cold War) and unknowingly begins to walk in his shoes.
So while Wallace believes all London's a stage and everyone he encounters is merely a player, he's mistaken for a deadly interloper by real criminals, including Joanne Whalley's femme fatale and Alfred Molina's butcher-assassin.
Screenwriters Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin (adapting Farrar's novel Watch That Man) set up an elaborate contraption of a plot, ripe with comedic misunderstandings. Director Jon Amiel (Queen of Hearts) knows that the key to making this flimsy premise work is to play it straight, pushing the action forward while letting only the audience in on the joke.
While its title refers to The Man Who Knew Too Much -- which Alfred Hitchcock liked so much he made it twice -- this film is closer to the broad comedies of Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni, whose naif gets mistaken for a mafioso (Johnny Stecchino) and a serial killer (The Monster).
In The Man Who Knew Too Little, Bill Murray gleefully embodies an underachieving average guy who's made fearless by his ignorance, becoming the ultimate Teflon man.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.