IT'S HARD TO know what to do with an actor like Bill Murray. Hip, smug irony is a pretty hot commodity among young movie audiences these days, but Murray's already been there, done that: He practically pioneered the idea of smarmy, put-on hipsterism in his early years on Saturday Night Live. Even more important, he later sent it up -- and, without sacrificing his edginess, deflated it -- in movies like "Groundhog Day" and "Scrooged." Even though we all think we "know" Bill Murray, he's too astute, and too brainy, a performer to be that easily pigeonholed. He's survived because, unlike so many other Saturday Night Live alumni, he hasn't clobbered us silly by hammering away at the same note. The trademark Murray attributes -- at least a thin veneer of unlikability and, of course, his brilliant, blasi deadpan -- will always be there, but his challenge (and one he's met admirably so far) is to find new ways to use them.
That said, it still might seem that putting Bill Murray in the center of a funny little trifle like "The Man Who Knew Too Little" is like tucking an explosive device inside a bonbon -- and it is. Director Jon Amiel ("Copycat," "The Singing Detective") and screenwriters Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin have conceived a movie that, without Murray, would be a pretty flimsy shell. The picture doesn't have the crackling energy it should: It just tootles along, powered by its own good nature -- the little engine that could, but just barely.
Yet Murray keeps the movie's single, sustained gag -- an American tourist in England, thinking he's playing a role in an audience-participation theater production, unwittingly thwarts a ring of international bad guys -- alive, resuscitating it just when you think it's gone hopelessly stale with a tossed-off line or something as simple as a good old-fashioned eye-rolling. His Wallace Ritchie is the kind of friendly, lonely guy you never want to get stuck behind in the checkout line. At first you don't know how to take him at all: When the customs officer at the airport asks how long he'll be staying, he unloads a litany of things he wants to do (riding on a double-decker bus, having a suit made) that's so aggressively ingratiating it's almost hostile. When he shows up, unannounced, at the home of his brother (Peter Gallagher) and the stiff, proper, English sister-in-law he's never met, he mistakes the diminutive maid who greets him at the door for his brother's wife. He scoops her up in his arms, swinging her to and fro like a droopy rag doll, squealing, "Oh, look at you! You're such a little pocket rocket!"
"The Man Who Knew Too Little" keeps you watching not so much to see how the plot unfolds -- it involves a group of intelligence operatives trying to scuttle the signing of a high-profile peace treaty in order to bring back the Cold War -- as much as to see what Murray will do with his next line. Since Murray's Wallace thinks he's out for a night of participatory theater, he also thinks he's supposed to respond in character when bad guys like Alfred Molina's Boris the Butcher hold a knife to his throat or stab him with serum-laced ballpoint pens. Seeing the rumpled, eminently reasonable Wallace accidentally knock bad guys out by bonking them with the leg of the chair he's tied to, or explain to a cop (whom he thinks, of course, is an actor) why it's tough being a secret agent these days, is to watch him bumble toward becoming the character of his dreams.
What's funny is that Wallace doesn't just casually slip into the character of "Spencer," the role he thinks he's been assigned; it's as if he's trying to struggle into a coat with three sleeves. Setting out to face some bad-doers, he waggles his butt like a duck as he slips a gun into the back of his pants. And when he hooks up with call girl Lori (Joanne Whalley, who's very appealing, although she doesn't have much of a role), instead of trying to play the suave guy with her, he earnestly probes for information about her "acting" techniques. When she breaks down and cries in front of him, his jaw drops at the sight of her tears, and still thinking that she's acting, he asks with genuine incredulousness, "How do you people do it? Do you poke yourself in the eye? Or do you say to yourself, 'My dog is dead'?"
Although Murray's Wallace is basically likable (naturally, you root for him to get the girl), there's still something about him that makes you want to stay a good 50 yards away -- and that's yet more evidence of Murray's constantly evolving skill as an actor. It doesn't seem to be the case that Murray, as he gets older, believes that in order to appeal to audiences, he has to make his characters more cuddly. (Although it's worth noting that one of the nice things about "The Man Who Knew Too Little" is that it's aimed at adults but fine for most kids.) If the Bill Murray of "The Man Who Knew Too Little" is softer around the edges, he's still weirdly complex, and prickly in ways that can surprise you. As a vehicle for Murray, "The Man Who Knew Too Little" isn't all it could be, but it doesn't try to constrict him, either. Let Murray be the plastique inside the candy. It beats marshmallow anyday.