[Screen It]


(1997) (Bill Murray, Joanne Whalley) (PG)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Minor Mild *Minor Moderate
Moderate None Minor None Mild
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Mild Mild None Mild *Moderate

Comedy: A simple mixup causes a man to believe he's acting in a "reality" play, when in fact he's stumbled into a deadly game of espionage.
Wallace Ritchie (BILL MURRAY) is an easygoing American who makes an unannounced trip to England to visit his brother James (PETER GALLAGHER), a banker who's about to close a large business deal over dinner. James doesn't want his brother anywhere near the meeting, so he signs him up for a performance of the "theater of life," a realism-based play where the spectator becomes the actor in a continually unfolding story. A phone call begins the performance, but little does Wallace know that the call he's answered is actually for a real-life hitman. He goes and meets his target, Lori (JOANNE WHALLEY), who's an apparent call girl with some mysterious blackmail letters that a group of "terrorists" is looking for.

It seems these men, including cold war spies Sir Roger Daggenhurst (RICHARD WILSON) and Sergei (NICHOLAS WOODESON) are intent on disrupting a peace treaty between their native England and Russia and have set a timed explosive to stop the deal. Wallace, who thinks the events are still part of the play, unknowingly begins to disrupt their plans, and the men believe that he's some sort of super spy. Thus they send Boris "The Butcher" (ALFRED MOLINA) and others to stop him. As these men try to capture him and find out what Wallace knows, he continues his "performance," not knowing the real dangers that confront him.

If they're fans of Murray ("Groundhog Day," "Ghostbusters"), they just might. Preteens, though, will probably have little interest in this movie.
For language, innuendo, comic violence and sensuality.
  • BILL MURRAY plays a simple man who believes that everything around him is just part of an elaborate play he's in. Thus he shoots guns at people and does other dangerous things only because he doesn't think any of it is real.
  • JOANNE WHALLEY plays a woman we don't know much about, other than she appears to be a call girl at the beginning, and is attempting to blackmail some corrupt government officials.


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    If you mix a little bit of "Austin Powers" with some material from "The Game" -- two films from earlier this year -- you'd come up with "The Man Who Knew Too Little." Featuring one of our favorite comedic actors, Bill Murray, you can't fault this feature for having elements of both films since it was most likely well into production before those others were released. Still, the similarities are there. Like "Powers," this film spoofs the spy movie series, but it doesn't have as much silly fun as that movie, although it does include a great deal of similar "mod" music in its soundtrack.

    Its plot is much closer to "The Game," however, where a brother pays for his sibling to have some fun in a make believe world that turns out to be anything but that. Unlike that film, though, this one goes solely for the laughs and Murray is the perfect actor to be featured in such a role. Often cast as the disheveled and slightly confused lead, Murray expertly plays this character who unknowingly flirts with real danger while being game and really getting into his dramatic spy role.

    Murray's career has had its share of brilliant hits and a few thuds. Luckily -- for us and him -- this one falls closer to the hit side, especially when compared to his last film, "Larger Than Life" (the elephant movie that bombed with critics and audiences alike). This film puts him back into a more familiar groove, and he seems to be enjoying himself in the role. Although neither his performance nor this film is his funniest -- those honors still go to 1993's "Groundhog Day," this is definitely his best performance -- in his funniest film -- since then.

    Unfortunately the film never quite feels like it's running on all cylinders and thus never fully takes off into comic lunacy. The elements are all in place, and the script is rather clever in utilizing its characters' dual interpretations of what's occurring while also delivering double entendres. Yet it feels somewhat reserved -- as if Murray were held back by a creative leash that didn't want him, or the movie, to push the limits too far. That's too bad because the potential of this film is great, but never fully realized.

    Beyond Murray's restraint, the other problem lies with the supporting cast. While they perform adequately for such a film, many of the characters are just cardboard fillers or stereotypical villains (unlike Mike Meyers funny take as the villain in "Austin Powers"), and their sole function is to play the "straight man" to Murray. Since Murray's not fully unleashed, however, we need to see more humor from these characters to take up the slack. Yet they don't provide that, and the film consequently remains grounded.

    Don't get us wrong -- the movie has its share of funny moments, but none of them fall into the knee slapping, "stop cuz my stomach hurts from laughing so hard" category. Obviously much of the humor originates from us knowing the "real" danger that Murray faces, while he obliviously thinks it's all just part of the play. For example, an early scene involving Murray thinking two thieves are just actors -- while they're anything but -- is moderately humorous, but it should have been played much better.

    The rest of the humor comes from the plot's double meanings, where Murray thinks everyone is acting and what they say is just dialogue. Conversely, while they think what he says is profound, he's simply being rather matter of fact. For instance, Wallace tells some spies that he's "going to fire up some big ambassadors" near midnight, and the spies think he's on to their plan, when in reality he's referring to some cigars he and his brother plan to smoke later. There's a lot of other such similar material that will prod a chuckle and/or make you smile from its cleverness -- and a lot of it is quite fun -- but most of it's not hilarious.

    The ending provides an obvious tie-in for a sequel, where Murray will have yet another opportunity to misunderstand the plot he's stumbled into, while everyone else will think he's the best spy the world has ever known. Whether they make the sequel will depend on this film's success, and unfortunately it's running right into the middle of a very crowded pre-holiday playing field, so the odds aren't the best.

    Still, if you're a big Bill Murray fan you'll love this film, and you should -- it's his best in several years. On the other hand, if you're just looking for a good comedy, this one will probably work for you, but it's certainly not going to be the funniest thing you see this year. While it's clever, cute, and occasionally sparks a laugh, this film isn't quite as good as it thinks it is, or should have been. Thus, we give "The Man Who Knew Too Little" a 6 out of 10.

    While this film has it's share of objectionable material, little, if any, of it is severe, and most of it is played for laughs and not to be taken at face value. Nonetheless, there are several deaths played out in a cartoon-like fashion, but none of them are graphic. Some viewers, however, may not like violence being used as a basis for humor. There are a few lines of sexual innuendo, and we see a little bit of cleavage, but that's the worst of the sexually related material. A few people drink while a few others smoke, and the worst of the profanity is one "s" word. It's doubtful many preteens will want to see this film, but due to its PG rating, many parents may want to take the kids. Thus, we suggest, as always, that you read through the scene listings before doing so.

  • People drink wine with their dinner, and later others have the same at the peace signing treaty.
  • Wallace drinks a martini that Lori has fixed.
  • Boris has some blood stains on his apron (from being a real-life butcher in a butcher shop).
  • The spies and hitmen have both, but since it's all played in a lighthearted and always comic fashion, they never seem maliciously motivated.
  • James implies that Germans don't have a sense of humor when telling his wife why Wallace can't be at their business dinner.
  • Some viewers may find scenes listed under "Violence" as a little tense, but none of them are designed to be that way, and instead are played for laughs.
  • Bomb: Created during the opening credits and then set on a timer to explode during a peace signing treating at the end of the movie. It does kill two of the bad guys.
  • Handguns: Used during an actual play, and later by real-life hitmen. See "Violence" for details.
  • Knife: Used by Boris to threaten several people.
  • Switchblade/Bat: Used by two thugs to rob Wallace.
  • Phrases: "Piss off," "Stupid cow," "Go to hell," "Bastard," "Pansy," "Nut" (crazy), "Punk," "Bloody maniac," "Jerk," "Screwed" (nonsexual), "Doesn't that just bite it," "Bloody idiot," "Fartsy little dweeb," and "Shut up."
  • Wallace pokes himself in the eye as he tries to get himself to cry "on cue" like he thinks actors do.
  • Wallace, thinking it's part of the play and acting like his spy character, eludes the police during a car chase. During so, he purposefully drives over many little orange construction cones and a cop comments that he always wanted to do that himself.
  • Wallace makes exaggerated nasal "snorting" and throat clearing sounds several times.
  • Some kids may imitate Wallace and "play" with guns (where he thinks they're fake, when in fact they're quite real).
  • None.
  • There's just a bit of "playful" suspense oriented music in a few scenes.
  • None.
  • 1 "s" word, 3 damns, 2 hells, 2 craps, 2 asses, 1 S.O.B., and 4 uses of "Oh my God," 3 uses of "My God," and 1 use each of "G-damn," "Dear God," "Good God," and "For God's sakes" as exclamations.
  • We see a business card in a phone booth that shows the silhouette of a shapely woman with the words, "Temptress," "Will please," "Tease," and "Very versatile."
  • Wallace tells James that he's "going to do it" (a scene with Lori), and James tells him, "Great. Do it with a girl and have a wonderful time."
  • We see the upper and outside part of Lori's thigh as she pulls her garters up and later we see quite a bit of cleavage when she's dressed in a sexy maid's outfit. She then says to Wallace, "Do you think I look silly in this outfit? I can take it off if you like."
  • Thinking that he's going to kill her, Lori asks Wallace for a last request. He says, "Like a cigarette?" She replies (as she nears his crotch), "I had something more substantial in mind." He then says, "Like a cigar?" to which she says, "Now you're boasting." She then starts to undo his pants while reaching for a gun, but he accidentally smashes her hand in the drawer and that activity ends there.
  • Wallace tells Lori, "There's something I want. You're going to have to let me do it." She replies, "So it's like that." He says, "I'm afraid so," to which she says, "Typical men." He's referring, however, to driving the car.
  • Distracted by his brother, James mistakenly says "sexports" instead of "exports" during his meeting.
  • We see an older couple (he's tied up, she's dressed in leather) involved in some anniversary S&M activity where she lightly whips him.
  • Boris tells an obviously gay male stage manager, "I'm looking for a tall American," to which the manger replies, "Aren't we all, dear?"
  • James shows Wallace some big cigars they'll smoke when he returns from his play, but they never smoke them.
  • Sergei smokes in several scenes.
  • Some men smoke cigars at James' dinner meeting, and later others smoke at the peace signing treaty.
  • A few other miscellaneous people smoke.
  • None.
  • Playing with guns like they're fake (or toys).
  • Almost everything listed below is played for laughs and isn't mean to be taken seriously.
  • A man holds a gun on several people during a scene from a play.
  • A real hitman then shoots the above man dead with a silencer-equipped handgun.
  • Two thugs rob Wallace and threaten him with a switchblade and a bat.
  • Wallace (thinking his gun is a fake) shoots at the Minister of Defense and hits the phone he's holding.
  • A hitman breaks through a window and grabs Lori, who tries to fight him. He eventually gets his arm around her neck, but lets go once Wallace aims his gun at him.
  • Lori smacks Wallace after he says that she's the defense minister's call girl.
  • Wallace and Lori find a dead man in a chair, but we don't know how he was killed, and Wallace thinks he's just an actor "playing" dead.
  • Wallace, still thinking his gun is fake, shoots at Lori and just misses her.
  • Several characters are knocked out by some sort of sedative injected into their arms.
  • Boris holds a large knife to Wallace's throat, but his associates talk him out of killing Wallace.
  • Wallace accidentally hits a man with a chair while another is knocked out after slipping on some marbles. Later, Wallace accidentally hits a waiter several times and likewise head butts him while sneezing.
  • Police burst into James' home with their guns drawn.
  • Two men shoot at Wallace with a silencer-equipped gun and nearly hit him on the building ledge where he's standing.
  • Wallace holds a gun to an S&M woman's head, while still acting like he's a spy.
  • A torturer hooks James up to several electrodes, and while we don't see anything, it's implied he was slightly tortured.
  • Boris knocks someone out with a little karate chop.
  • A man knocks out a helicopter pilot, and moments later it explodes, killing the two "bad guys" inside it.

  • Reviewed November 10, 1997

    Other new and recent reviews include:

    [A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood] [Frozen 2] [Knives Out] [Queen & Slim] [21 Bridges]

    Privacy Statement and Terms of Use and Disclaimer
    By entering this site you acknowledge to having read and agreed to the above conditions.

    All Rights Reserved,
    ©1996-2019 Screen It, Inc.