Make him a TV weatherman, a psychiatric patient, a Ghostbuster — in a Bill Murray comedy, what you get is Bill Murray in a state of assertive obliviousness, sailing through situations that would make a more self-aware man stumble. The shtick is durable; at his funniest, Murray is the Saturday Night Live alum who has aged the most gracefully. But to unleash his funniest, the right setup is crucial.
The Man Who Knew Too Little (Warner Bros.) lies somewhere between funny and funnier. Murray plays Wallace, a Des Moines video-store clerk visiting his tycoon brother (Peter Gallagher) in London. To get him out of the house, James buys Wallace a ticket to a theater experience in which the audience is part of the action. All Wallace has to do to join the cast is wait in a phone booth for instructions. What he accidentally intercepts, however, are marching orders for an assassin linked to a plot involving government leaders, a call girl (Joanne Whalley), a Russian hitman (Alfred Molina), and heck-all else. Through which, of course, Wallace prevails with the nutty composure of a man who is never aware of the danger he is actually in.
The spy spoof doesn’t have the Murray-perfect inevitability of What About Bob?; the premise is convoluted, and the comedian does nothing new. But there’s something about the presence of id-heavy Murray, with his loungy American manner, maneuvering through superego-saturated England that clicks. Working with British director Jon Amiel (the BBC masterpiece The Singing Detective), Murray demonstrates a kind of communicable loose joy. The Man culminates in his mad Russian dance in front of a roomful of diplomats: Wearing a big fur hat, he tosses around one of those wooden nesting dolls, which happens to contain a bomb. Do not attempt this at home. B