To those who believe that 2011’s surprisingly solid Tower Heist heralded the return of funny Eddie Murphy – you know the guy who had us in stitches for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s before the laughter abruptly ceased in the aughts – A Thousand Words which Murphy actually shot before appearing in the Brett Ratner comedy provides a fervent reminder of just how far moviedom’s once-preeminent funnyman has fallen over the past decade.
A Thousand Words stars Murphy as Jack McCall a selfish manically verbose literary agent whose incessant type-A striving leaves little time for the consideration of others. He neglects his wife (Kerry Washington) and infant son browbeats his overtaxed assistant (Clark Duke) and regularly bends the truth to suit his needs. In short he’s in desperate need of the kind of high-concept comic comeuppance that only the most trite and derivative script can provide. Thankfully screenwriter Steve Koren is more than up to the task. (He’s also responsible for Jack and Jill Adam Sandler’s most recent cinematic insult.)
Jack’s karmic reprisal begins in earnest during a trip to a new age Ashram where he attempts to recruit a popular non-denominational spiritual guru named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis). While making his transparently smarmy pitch to handle Sinja’s next book deal he cuts his finger on a nearby Bodhi tree. The following day the tree abruptly sprouts in Jack’s backyard bearing the seeds of a potential life lesson: For every word that Jack speaks a leaf will fall from the tree. When all the leaves disappear Sinja warns so too will Jack.
Suddenly Jack a man who prides himself on his ability to “talk anyone into anything ” is forced to rely entirely on physical gestures and facial expressions (writing words on paper makes the leaves fall as well) to get his message across.
A Thousand Words’ entire comedic blueprint is built around this rather dubious device and it fails repeatedly over the course of the next torturous hour. Murphy dances and flails and mugs but the laughs never come save for a handful of moments in which Duke’s beleaguered assistant tries vainly to translate his gestures. Part of the problem is a meager supporting cast another a succession of predictable setups but that’s hearsay really. I doubt Chaplin himself could have made this ill-conceived shtick work.
There is a surprising sweetness and sincerity that manifests during A Thousand Words’ third act when Jack realizes the error of his ways and tries to resolve the childhood trauma that led him to his present douchiness. It’s enough to acquit Murphy and his director Brian Robbins of charges of cynicism. Their crimes against comedy however are not so easily forgiven.
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