Dumb and Dumber has a lot in common with The Man Who Knew Too Little. They’re both ‘90s comedies, and they feature top-tier comedians: the former stars Jim Carrey early in his career while the latter stars Bill Murray late in his. But the similarities go much deeper than that. One of these films is fondly remembered today and the other has mostly disappeared into obscurity, but both have a lot of great laughs to offer. Let’s see how Dumb and Dumber compares to The Man Who Knew Too Little.
Unwittingly Caught Up in a Sinister Plot
In both films, the protagonists unwittingly find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas wind up with a briefcase full of extortion money that they attempt to return to its owner. Little do they know that the kidnappers who were supposed to get that money are hot on their heels. Wallace Ritchie is an American visiting his brother in London, and he gets mistaken for a spy even as he thinks everyone around him is taking part in elaborate playacting. As a result, he doesn’t take any of the murder and mayhem he witnesses seriously.
Well Set Up Comedy
Misunderstandings are a prime source of comedy in these movies. In addition, they frequently build on those misunderstandings to create hilarious payoffs. For example, Harry doesn’t understand what is meant by throwing salt over his shoulder as a superstitious action, so he throws a whole saltshaker behind him. This causes a chain of events that leads to Lloyd and him getting on the bad side of an intimidating truck driver, accidentally serving some of their bodily fluid to a police officer, and getting accosted in a gas station restroom. They emerge mostly unscathed from these misadventures. For his part, Wallace gets mugged and surrenders his wallet at the start of his spy adventure. This leads to a funny run-in with the police in which he refuses to show them his ID because he no longer has it, and the officers become convinced that he really is a spy. Virtually every joke in The Man Who Knew Too Little stems from Wallace’s ignorance of the dangerous situation he is in. He thinks he’s completely safe, so he walks into harm’s way with reckless confidence. Thankfully, it always turns out well for him.
The movies come up with creative ways to make their absurd situations plausible. Dumb and Dumber sets up a hitman as having ulcers, which pays off when he thinks Harry and Lloyd are referring to him in a letter to the “gas man” (when they really meant their natural gas utility provider) and when they accidentally give him rat poison when they meant to give him his ulcer medicine. The Man Who Knew Too Little sets up Wallace’s use of a nasal spray, which comes in handy when he makes his escape from a couple of trained killers. Returning to Dumb and Dumber, there’s Harry’s infamous parakeet whose head falls off and the bad guy’s snow owl that gets killed by Lloyd’s expertly aimed bottle cork. Tit for tat. The bad guys can’t chalk it up to coincidence. It looks too much like a deliberate act of retaliation. In The Man Who Knew Too Little, all of the other spies think that Wallace is speaking in code, so whenever he says a non sequitur, they chalk it up to his higher level of spy work.
There’s a love story that blossoms over the course of the films. For Lloyd, it’s love at first sight when he lays his eyes on Mary Swanson. Later, Harry meets her, and a love triangle ensues. But, unfortunately for them, she’s already married, so neither of them even has a one-in-a-million chance of ending up with her. Wallace meets up with a call girl named Lori who has a painful past, and he slowly wins her over with his effortless charms. He thinks she’s just an actress and that he has no chance of ending up with her, but he’s dead wrong. They end up living happily ever after together.
The heroes are usually painted in a positive light, but are they actually likable? On my most recent viewing, I realized that Harry and Lloyd are kind of sociopaths. Lloyd dreams of murdering Mary’s husband in petty revenge for simply existing, he’s rude to a bartender and bar patron when they go out of their way to be kind to him, and he makes Harry suffer on many occasions. For his part, Harry has a violent temper, which makes him fly into a rage at the smallest slight from Mary. His disproportionate response to her playful antics on the slopes is to throw a snowball right in her face from a couple of feet away and then tackle her to the ground. She thinks he’s just kidding around, so she’s able to defuse the situation, but it’s clear he’s ready to keep escalating the fight, if necessary. I get it, they’re not supposed to be great men; they’re supposed to be dumb. But there’s a difference between a lack of social etiquette and rudeness. By comparison, Wallace comes across as completely amiable. Any lying that he does can be chalked up to the fact that he thinks he’s playing a part. He’s supposed to pretend to be a spy, so anything goes. When he comes across as insensitive to Lori’s feelings, it’s not because he’s being malicious, but because he thinks she’s in on the joke.
Clash for Cash
There’s some comical gunplay and a suitcase full of cash that play into the finale of both movies. Harry proves to be a horrible shot when he has a perfect chance to shoot the villain and misses six times while Wallace proved to be an exceptional shot early in his night when he shot the phone cradle right next to a bad guy as he was lifting the handset. Toward the end of the film, some trained killers try and fail to shoot Wallace even as they spray bullets in his general direction. Harry and Lloyd wind up frivolously spending all of the money in the briefcase and, in the end, they have nothing. Wallace, on the other hand, makes out like a bandit, getting his hands on a suitcase full of cash that he and Lori can retire on.
Dumb and Dumber has a stronger ending than The Man Who Knew Too Little. Harry and Lloyd stay true to their character in the end by refusing to take advantage of a perfect opportunity they’ve been seeking. They are too dumb to recognize something blatantly obvious staring them in the face. Wallace gets recruited by the U.S. government to become a real spy. And he’s still the man who knew too little because he thinks they’re hiring him for an acting gig. The scene goes on a little too long, so definitely props should go to Dumb and Dumber for ending at just the right moment.
Now You Know
Now you know that there’s another film in the same vein as Dumb and Dumber. If nothing else, I hope this inspires you to seek out The Man Who Knew Too Little and see it for yourself. It’s a funny little movie that doesn’t get enough respect for its clever blend of humor. I think it stacks up nicely when compared to other comedies of its era. It’s good clean fun. Dumb and Dumber still holds up as one of the funniest Jim Carrey movies by riding the line between silly and smart. They’re both definitely worth a watch. And if you have a strong stomach, check out Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.
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