The Man Who Knew Too Little

Bill Murray’s losing streak is over. After a decade or so of lackluster, what-were-they-thinking? movies, he has finally come back to himself with the clever new comedy “The Man Who Knew Too Little.”

Murray plays Wallace Ritchie, a Blockbuster video employee from Iowa who pays an unexpected visit to his investment banker brother in London. The brother, James, has an important dinner to attend to, though, so he looks for some activity to keep Wally busy for a few hours.

What he discovers is “Theatre of Life.” It’s a theater group with a twist: For a small fee, YOU become part of the play. You improvise as the actors lead you through a twisting murder mystery that takes you through the actual streets of London. Fun idea, right?

Well, naturally Wally accidentally gets involved in a REAL international intrigue-type episode, but he doesn’t realize it — he thinks he’s in a play, and that all the people around him are actors.

Surprisingly little suspension of disbelief is required here. Once you can accept the idea of there being a thing like “Theatre of Life” — and it’s really not that far-fetched an idea; perhaps such a thing already exists — then you can accept the rest of it.

Great use is made of every-day conversation that could be taken in two ways. Wally refers to “improvising,” “setting the stage,” “knockin’ ’em dead” — all expressions that he uses to refer to the “play” he’s in, but which the other characters use to mean the real-life situation they’re dealing with.

Robert Farrar did an excellent job adapting his book “Watch That Man” into a screenplay that is inventive, well-paced and funny.

There is strangely little exposition in this movie, and the result is that the first half-hour seems like a long “Saturday Night Live” sketch. We meet Wally when he’s already arriving in London; we know very little about him as a person, which is how most sketch characters are: two-dimensional, one-joke people. The joke of him thinking he’s in a play when really he’s not is quite funny, but how long can that sustain itself?

I was relieved when a plot finally developed and the movie kept going. The joke was still the same — Wally’s ignorance of the true situation keeps him blissfully entertained in the face of impending death — but enough variation was made to keep it funny.

Murray plays Wally not as a bumbling fool — an Inspector Clouseau who stumbles from one mishap to the next — but rather as a fairly ordinary, spontaneous guy who is having the time of his life despite being in serious danger.

The movie is rated PG and has only two or three objectionable words or phrases. It’s a surprisingly clean, almost innocent movie — and yet it is wickedly funny and very clever, too.

B+ (1 hr., 34 min.; PG, mild profanity, mild violence.)