Bill Murray was an actor once. Oh sure, he still stands in front of a camera and plays pretend. Very well, when he wants to. But that’s not what Bill Murray is known for anymore – Bill Murray is known for being Bill Murray. Though that’s not a Zen ideal so much as internet folklore. His late-period, high-profile wanderings through karaoke bars, engagement photo shoots, and White House press briefings have boosted his profile from beloved comedy icon to mythological beast. So outsized is his image that an entire genre of urban legend rests on his shoulders, shoulders which only shrug when pressed about the legends’ validity. And yet he doesn’t give a damn about the Internet, the only place where a wildfire about a famous guy doing whatever he wants because he can could spread so fast and so passionately. He has become a philosophy, meme, and two-word badge for people to flash in lieu of actually proving they’re funny. Bill Murray’s name is a punchline to a joke that nobody bothers to tell and, if pressed, probably couldn’t.
Which makes it all the stranger that he hasn’t starred in a comedy in 20 years. The case could be made for the likes of St. Vincent or Rock the Kasbah, but the former banked on the presence of other formidable comedy stars and the latter dipped into drama. I’m talking about a “Bill Murray movie,” that lives or dies solely on the sarcastic charms of the first, anxious addition to the original cast of Saturday Night Live, who only made a name for himself after asking the audience to find him funny.
The Man Who Knew Too Little, released on Nov. 14, 1997, checks the boxes – distinctly a comedy that belongs to Bill Murray – but it almost doesn’t feel like what it is because Bill Murray isn’t in Bill Murray mode. Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters established the Bill Murray type, for better or worse, the Chicago-handsome wiseass who, underneath the almost-too-quick wit and grin of questionable motive, has a heart of gold. Misfired knock-offs could be found in a sizable majority of other comedies throughout the ‘80s and an alarming number of men today. For best illustration and worst cognitive dissonance, check out Moving Violations, a Police Academy carbon copy starring Bill’s own brother, John, who not only plays a Bill Murray type, but walks, talks, and looks startlingly like him. Come the ‘90s, the Bill Murray type evolved. With Quick Change and Groundhog Day, that smarmy smile hid more sadness than lechery. Soon it would atrophy into a dramatic second wind of aging charmers more broken than they’d ever admit. But right before that, Bill Murray played a moron.
The Man Who Knew Too Little is closest in spirit to What About Bob? In both cases, the titular character is a hopeless-but-hopeful simp who can never read a room, to the chagrin and salvation of everyone in it. But whereas Bob is a natural irritant, Wallace Ritchie is a cuddlier presence. When his brother presents him as a player in the movie business, Ritchie explains that he works at the Blockbuster Video in Des Moines, Iowa, without a hint of self-consciousness. So when he accidentally stumbles into a web of international intrigue instead of the experimental theater experience he was signed up for, he’s none the wiser. The movie then takes the form of a feature-length, live-action version of the Looney Tunes gag where someone keeps wandering in a straight line through a construction site as all the machinery comes within inches of maiming them, but manages to instead form a perfectly harmless path through the mayhem. Every time Ritchie is tied up, knocked out or otherwise outnumbered, you’re left to wonder how he’ll accidentally beat the odds because you know he inevitably must. Does he unwittingly concuss a bad guy by hitting him in the head with the chair tied to his back? Of course. Does he scare half the criminal underworld by waving around a gun that only he doesn’t know is real? You know he does. Does he earn an unlikely reputation as the deadliest spy in the game? Boris the Butcher considers him a brother by the end credits.
The Man Who Knew Too Little is such a light, slight farce that you’d think you missed something. It almost seems like an accidental Bill Murray movie. In 1997, the year where Liar Liar and the first Austin Powers reigned supreme, a harmless spy romp almost entirely devoid of sarcasm, innuendo, and manic performances must’ve seemed quaint.
But boy is it refreshing. In a role that easily could’ve been played by another star, like Jim Carrey or Mike Myers, and runs hard against type, Bill Murray makes an effortless case for why he’s Bill Murray. Every scene with him is a joy. The rest of the cast does what they have to — prop up an improbable tangle of hitmen, Cold War nostalgia and bad theater — but it’s Murray’s movie. When he’s not around, it feels dangerously like an HBO Original Movie from when that was a warning. But as soon as he bumbles in, everything lights up. Whether he’s trying his best to keep up with a Russian ceremonial dance or quoting The Shining to nobody’s amusement but his own, it’s almost magical to watch Bill Murray be goofy in a way that runs so contrary to his modern legend. He’s a tremendous dork in a comedy that’s not at all bad, but not nearly a classic.
Rushmore came out the next year. It finally opened the doors he’d been knocking on intermittently since his other 1984 release, The Razor’s Edge; audiences were finally taking Bill Murray seriously. In between critical re-examinations like Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, Murray put in time as a reliably funny supporting player in movies that didn’t deserve it. Charlie’s Angels. Osmosis Jones. There’s a perverse case to be made for the two live-action Garfield attempts counting as “Bill Murray movies,” but that case is dulled by the fact that he plays a CGI cat and only signed on because he thought it was written by the Coen Brothers — at least according to Murray, who we’ve already established is happy to let his mystical reputation spin absurd fiction into mostly accepted truth.
Twenty years later, The Man Who Knew Too Little still holds its title as the last time we saw a “Bill Murray movie,” before he started flexing more dramatic muscles, before the mythology overtook the man. It couldn’t have seemed like it at the time. If anything, considering he made Larger Than Life, a movie about him bonding with an elephant, right before it, The Man Who Knew Too Little looks an awful lot like the beginning of the end. An amiable early stop on the road to blander, dumber comedies that fellow Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd soldiered through in the early ‘90s before embracing his own second wind as an ace-in-the-hole character actor.
I own the movie on a DVD four-pack, the kind that ominously only comes with two double-sided DVDs. Spies Like Us, Vegas Vacation, The Man With Two Brains and our Man. The box calls it “Classic Comedy,” but it’s all “Classic Comedy Adjacent.” Four worthwhile B-sides whose gravest sin was coming out in between and around better (or better loved) efforts from everyone involved.
That’s exactly where The Man Who Knew Too Little belongs. It doesn’t carve out a spot in the star’s top five or even top ten, but it’s a respectable and refreshing reminder of Bill Murray, Comedy Icon, before he became Bill Murray, Bill Murray.
Jeremy Herbert knows too little in Cleveland.