Bill Murray’s in his element as an unwitting secret agent in the spy spoof “The Man Who Knew Too Little.”
But while the performance is vintage Murray, the vehicle is a little wobbly.
Based on the unpublished novel “Watch That Man” by England’s Robert Farrar, the mistaken-identity story has an unmistakably warmed-over feel, playing out like a Peter Sellers movie that got away.
The elements are certainly all there, but director Jon Amiel (“Copycat,” “Sommersby”) and co-writer and frequent Murray collaborator Howard Franklin (“Larger Than Life,” “Quick Change”) have opted for a laid-back, low-key approach to the kind of material that cries out for more of an “Austin Powers” broadness.
Murray tones down the patented sarcasm as Wallace Ritchie, an Iowa video store clerk who treats himself to a trip to London, where he’ll be able to celebrate his birthday with his very successful, big-business brother, James (Peter Gallagher).
As it happens, Wallace’s surprise visit coincides with a very important party James is having for potential investors. Determined to keep Wallace occupied and out of the way for a few hours, James gets him a ticket to “Theatre of Life,” one of those participatory pieces in which role-playing audience members interact with the performers.
The rules are simple. Wallace must wait at a phone booth until he gets the call to show up at a designated location.
But quicker that you can say, “Sorry, wrong number,” he inadvertently intercepts a call made for a real-life, hired assassin whose people are hell-bent on reviving the Cold War with Russia.
After some initial awkwardness, Wallace quickly gets into his “role,” gleefully unaware that the fate of the entire Free World is hanging on his every movement.
Playing his part in a “Walter Mitty” state of sustained bliss (he never does cotton to his mistaken identity status), Murray brings an infectious, little-boy innocence to the picture.
It’s too bad director Amiel and screenwriters Farrar and Franklin couldn’t give the picture a stronger comic backbone. While the pace picks up a bit toward the end, it’s a case of too little, too late.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Man Who Knew Too Little” Location: East Sprague, Lyons, Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls Credits: Directed by Jon Amiel, starring Bill Murray, Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley, Richard Wilson, Alfred Molina, John Standing Running time: 1:35 Rating: PG-13