A Thousand Words on Eddie Murphy’s ‘A Thousand Words’
A Thousand Words is a 2012 comedy/drama about a man who, After stretching the truth on a deal with a spiritual guru, learns a valuable lesson on the consequences of every word he speaks.
No matter the movie Eddie Murphy finds himself in, the guy brings his game. 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, The Nutty Professor, even Pluto Nash, from great to grating, he’s always fun to watch, a kinetic force of energy who does drama right and comedy righteous.
He’s famous for his rapid fire delivery from a seemingly inexhaustible well of comebacks, snarky remarks, and explosive witticisms. He’s a master at it, and is why casting him in a movie that requires him to be quiet for 90 minutes would seem about as smart as having Jim Carrey in his heyday read for a part where he sits in a chair and reads rice cake recipes. Probably not a good idea.
The thing is though, A Thousand Words has a really smart idea. Murphy plays Jack McCall, a powerful literary agent who has gotten where is because of his fast talking method, affording him a beautiful cliffside house, a lovely wife (Kerry Washington), and son. When he goes to his therapist (Lou Saliba), the therapist literally doesn’t get a single word in.
One day, a New Age self-help guru named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis) has written a book and getting him signed would be a career-defining deal. However, when Sinja meets Jack, the guru sees through the mile-a-minute routine and somehow, that night, a magical tree appears in Jack’s backyard. Sinja visits Jack and the two discover that the tree sheds a leaf for every word he says. And since Jack talks a blue streak, leaves are falling like rain. Oh, and he can’t write them either because, well, that would solve the whole problem and presto, no movie.
Unsure what to do, Jack realizes that if the leaves all fall, the tree will die, and perhaps, the same will be for him. What follows is Jack spending the next two days – as Sinja goes on a retreat to find a solution – struggling to get by without speaking. It ain’t easy. Especially since the tree and Jack seem to be not just bound by words, but body as well. Hurt the tree, hurt Jack. Have squirrels run circles around it, Jack giggles from tickling. Spray water on the tree, Jack sweats like he’s stuck in a sauna with ski parka. Douse the tree in bug spray, Jack um, gets high?
Directed by Brian Robbins and written by Steve Koren, the film generally misses the larger opportunity to be anything substantial, taking the theme and poking it for jokes while sprinkling a thin message about family over the top. Jack loses his job and his family along the way as he stumbles through a montage of contrived need-to-speak moments including an encounter with a blind man trying to cross the street and a phone call with an important client (he uses pull string type dolls to somehow miraculous get through it).
Naturally, that’s the first half, the comedic setup allowing the drama of the second half to feel more earned, though it’s a jarring shift. Up to this point, we discover all the ways Jack needs to be a better man and father, and this is exactly where mentioning Jim Carrey again makes sense because A Thousand Words runs pretty close alongside his Liar Liar, a film that saw him spend a day unable to tell a lie, learning how to be a better man and father. Jack is ‘nothing’ without his words, and can’t see that to understand what’s happening to him, he needs to not just shut up but honestly communicate his feelings to those he loves, something we’ve figured pretty much before the movie even started.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with this. He’s desperate to explain to his wife what’s happening, jumping through visual hoops to sort of say it, but she won’t have it and of course, because the movie can’t afford to have her even remotely try to understand why he’s not speaking suddenly, packs up leaves. The whole time that’s happening, the audience is screaming at the screen to just walk her seven steps out of the house and show her the damned tree, like he does later when he explains it to his assistant (Clark Duke), even using a chalkboard to draw it out. It’s moments like this, of which there a plenty, that really sap the life out of the movie, not to mention some weird ‘comedy’ bits that wildly miss the mark. Picture Jack getting hit square in the face with a children’s swing and you get the idea.
You want to like Murphy. He’s all charisma, an actor possessing a rare quality that makes him endlessly watchable, even if everything around him makes no sense. There is a remarkable moment in a restaurant when Jack sits with Sinja, who has returned from his retreat. Jack, at this point, has lost everything, the tree down to handfuls of leaves. He is desperate and afraid, convinced he’s done all he can to stop this nightmare. This is the movie’s turning point really, and it’s most affecting bit with Murphy simply astonishing. He’s a whole different character, turning Jack into a man filled with ache and remorse, lost and embattled, almost accepting of a fate he has fully lost control of. What Murphy does in this powerful moment is pull us from the comedy and into the personal pain, making us absolutely on board with what he needs to do next. It’s a great moment and makes me wish the filmmakers had more confidence in audiences to accept Murphy at this level instead of demanding some breezy, unchallenging comedy. The man would have won awards.
A Thousand Words is a disappointment. No getting around that. However, it’s not a total loss, and for fans of Murphy is a sure thing. That’s my thousand words.