What is the deal with Eddie Murphy? I mean, we have proof that he has talent (most recently we saw that he can successfully take on a dramatic role in Dreamgirls), yet he continues to squander it on movies that range from just mediocre to genuinely, eye-ball meltingly, eardrum-shreddingly bad. His latest, A Thousand Words, lands somewhere right in the middle.
The film, which was made in 2008 yet sat on the shelf until now, has a high-concept premise – a man can only utter one thousand more words before he dies – that possibly would have worked well as a sort of life-reflecting drama in the vein of What Dreams May Come. Instead we get an occasionally slapstick, mostly silly interpretation of the material that does no one (especially Murphy and certainly not supporting MVPs Ruby Dee and Alison Janney) any favours.
Murphy plays literary agent Jack McCall, who seems to be an okay, if kind of self-involved guy. He has a relatively new wife (Kerry Washington) and brand new son who he clearly loves but doesn’t pay enough attention to and a mother (Dee) who’s in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s who doesn’t recognize him during his frequent visits. He’s also courting a new age guru named Sinja (Cliff Curtis) who has apparently written a self help tome that has the publishing industry buzzing.
In an attempt to sign Sinja to his agency, Jack heads to his ashram and talks his way into wooing the cagey man. While there, he also leans on a Bodhi tree and apparently instigates the curse (for reasons that are never fully explained).
The tree transplants itself into Jack’s backyard and from then on one leaf falls for every word Jack uses until the branches are bare and Jack and the tree die together. Jack soon finds out that written words count (as do certain obscene hand gestures) so he’s left to using drawings (bizarrely there’s no mention of the fact that pictures are supposedly worth a thousand words), vague charades and animal noises to try and get his point across.
You can probably guess what happens next. After Jack realizes his predicament, he stops talking. This drives his already frustrated wife over the edge, causes misunderstandings at work, and jeopardizes more than one business deal. Sinja, who would seem to be the best source of assistance, is mystified and annoyingly amazed by what’s happening.
Oh, and Jack is apparently also physically connected to the tree, a plot point that only seems to manifest itself when it’s time for some more slapstick comedy. See squirrels playing tag up and down the tree trunk; see Jack get all squirmy and giggly in front of his boss. See the tree get treated with pesticide; see Jack get stoned at a business lunch…and so on.
Writer Steve Koren’s (Jack and Jill) idea isn’t terrible per se (although it certainly is weird), it’s just executed in a manner that doesn’t do it any justice. Director Brian Robbins (Norbit, Meet Dave) only seems to swing to either extreme: potty-mouthed kid humour or cloying and preachy comment on the importance of love, family and forgiveness.
Despite all that, Murphy does a pretty good job keeping up with the various indignities heaped on him and outright shines during some of the more compelling aspects of the story (one subplot involves Jack coming to terms with his Father’s departure from his life many years before). The story occasionally reaches some very dark places and Murphy makes you believe Jack might actually die once the tree is bare. It’s just too bad that the rest of the movie fails him so very miserably.
A thousand words? Try two words: stay away.