Bottom line: this film is not worth a theater ticket – maybe not even worth a rental.
In A Thousand Words Eddie Murphy plays Jack McCall, a hotshot literary agent who is known for (what else?) his quick-fire linguistics. When Jack learns of a book recently completed by new age guru Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), he infiltrates Sinja’s seminar on self-discovery through silence, in order to seal a deal. That visit, and the…creative truths Jack tells Sinja, result in a mysterious tree popping up in Jack’s backyard. It isn’t long before even on-the-go Jack puts two and two together and notices that the new tree sheds a leaf with every word he speaks (or writes).
Sinja observes that Jack and the tree are somehow spiritually linked; if the tree should lose all its leaves, Jack will die. The guru promises to seek council from other wise men during his upcoming retreat, leaving Jack alone for three days with his predicament. The curse couldn’t have come at a worse time: Jack has important meetings with publishers interested in Sinja’s book; his wife Caroline (Kerry Washington) is fed up with trying to raise their son in the glorified bachelor pad Jack calls a home; and his dementia-afflicted mother, Annie (Ruby Dee), wants nothing more for her birthday than a visit from Jack’s late estranged father.
With so many big things on his plate, Jack tries to navigate 72 hours of his chaotic life – without wasting a word. But as this lost soul will learn, being silent and truly listening are not one and the same.
One big problem (of many) with A Thousand Words is its unbalanced tone. Initially, the film has all the earmarks of the family-friendly slapstick comedy that has become the trademark of Murphy’s 21st century career, but when the cuss words start dropping, you’ll wonder if we’re not going to see some classic “dirty Murphy” after all. Spoiler Alert: raunchy comedy is not what we get, either.
After an initial setup – punctuated by spastic (and worn-out) Eddie Murphy schtick – the film evolves into a more earnest story about a man with deep-seeded emotional issues, who truly needs the extreme (and fantastical) circumstances of the film to clean out his soul and get his life in order. The final third of the film is actually surprising in how serious it attempts to be, with Murphy displaying some dramatic acting ability not seen since his work in Dreamgirls.
The downside of the film’s climatic emotional machinations (keyword: machinations), is that the heartfelt sentiment is at total odds with the sheer amount of buffoonery and ridiculousness that precedes it. I’ve already described the Murphy-brand buffoonery of the first act, but it’s the utter ridiculousness of Act 2 that manages to unravel A Thousand Words. The main problem is that when Murphy starts to conform to his coerced code of silence, his choices, and the reactions of the supporting characters, are totally silly and illogical, to the point of aggravation.
Whether it’s day-to-day business matters with his assistant Aaron (Clark Duke), or important marital issues with his wife, somehow the supporting characters use Jack’s silence as a springboard to jump to the most extreme or unlikely conclusions. (For example: It takes five seconds of Jack not speaking for Aaron to immediately start confessing his deepest, darkest, secrets. Just like real life *sarcasm*.) Things get even dumber with the forced injection of a secondary plot device (Jack is physically affected by whatever happens to the tree), which is milked for some arbitrary scenes of unfunny physical comedy (pesticide spray on the tree makes Jack “high” during an important meeting, etc.).
Even more excruciating is the total lack of logic in regards to where, why, and when Jack is willing – and not willing – to speak. He risks bodily harm, rather than give a blind man a verbal warning about oncoming traffic; risks losing his family, rather than saying a few choice words about his predicament or emotions; risks not getting some triple-X love from his hot wife, rather than spitting out a few dirty words (madness!) – but he’ll curse or rant whenever he’s the least bit frustrated (or rather, when the filmmakers think it will be “funny”). By the time Jack starts saying the right things, you’ll probably wish the tree had been hacked apart and used for firewood.
Writer Steven Koren has a long list of films people either love, or love to hate (Night at the Roxbury, Bruce Almighty, Click, Evan Almighty, Adam-Sandler’s Razzie-nominated Jack and Jill) and A Thousand Words fits perfectly in that not-so-proud collection of often-predictable, sporadically enjoyable, works. Varsity Blues director Brian Robbins has followed Murphy down the dark path of his recent career (Norbit, Meet Dave), and although those collaborations have resulted in some terrible films (Norbit, Meet Dave), with A Thousand Words I can say that Robbins makes the film at least look slick and polished.
For such a flimsy and poorly-executed concept, A Thousand Words manages to collect some talented players. Washington is a lovely leading lady (see also: Last King of Scotland); Cliff Curtis (Die Hard 4, Training Day) is a much better actor than his presence in this film would suggest; aging starlet Ruby Dee is still owning the screen in scene-stealing cameo roles (see also: her Oscar-nominated turn in American Gangster); and even actors like Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Allison Janney (The West Wing) could – nay, should – be doing better things with their talents.
Bottom line: this film is not worth a theater ticket – maybe not even worth a rental. Definitely one to catch on that odd Saturday night cable TV channel surf, where the damage to your wallet (and psyche) will be less felt.
A Thousand Words is now playing in theaters everywhere. The movie is rated PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, language and some drug-related humor.
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