Bottom Line: Eddie Murphy’s revised proverb states: “A Thousand Words is worth a boring, unfunny picture.”
Directed by: Brian Robbins
Starring: Brian Norris, Clark Duke, Cliff Curtis, Eddie Murphy, Emanuel Ragsdale, Eshaya Draper, Kerry Washington, Lou Saliba, Ruby Dee, Sarah Scott Davis
Once upon a time, Eddie Murphy was a spectacular comedian. As with many other comedians, his career began in the 1980s with still critically and publicly acclaimed hits such as Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America. That all changed in 1998, when Murphy began veering his comedy more toward family territory. The result: several flops such as a Doctor Dolittle remake, Dr. Dolittle 2, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, Meet Dave, and Imagine That. We’ve forgotten most, if not all of these existed despite their recency; looking at how well that page out of Encyclopedia Craptastica was received by critics in general, those six films average out to a decimal slightly below 31% Rotten Tomatoes approval, with scores of 44% at best and 13% at worst. Last year we were taken by surprise. Many of us may have gotten used to Murphy’s newfound lack of true comedy and skipped Tower Heist, a film in which he was ironically the standout. I still consider buying the film on DVD from time to time, just to have access to those laughs we haven’t seen since his motor-mouthed days of stand-up comedy and Saturday Night Live, before remembering that his Atlas-esque ability to carry the entire film over his own two shoulders, was virtually the only reason that movie was commendable. Needless to say, Tower Heist was all too promising. Perhaps it was a way to get our hopes up for another Murphy movie, even if that meant he, an actor known best for his hilarious characters who don’t know when or how to shut up, has to abide by silence for almost an entire movie. Thankfully the film has something to joke about in its concept, if nothing else, but that joke is all on Eddie Murphy, who heavily succumbs to it. Let’s call this A Thousand Turds for the sake of aptness.
A Thousand Words tries its hand at awe-inspiring quirk several times, only to go in a direction completely unintended. You can’t expect Eddie Murphy to star in a moving dramedy that uses a thought-provoking script to have an audience make sense of things themselves. For better or for worse, that was realized, and the film acts instead in the drag of a (Austin Powers fans, I believe this would be the perfect moment for “Mini-Me” air quotes) “cooo-meee-dyyyy” that tosses characters and events out so randomly, it makes the deus ex machina tactic seem brilliantly unconventional and genuine. We start with Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy), a hard-working family man devoted to his beautiful wife (Kerry Washington) and adorable toddler son (Emanuel Ragsdale). He is an important figure at an oh-so-busy publishing company, and in some of his spare time, he visits a psychiatrist. The scenes depicting his psychiatric support are intended to make us laugh, but somehow, the throwback to the classic motor mouth is downright annoying. Jack is visited by a genie-type figure and a tree with a thousand leaves that has suddenly grown in his garden. The genie soon hints at why the tree is there: some sort of spiritual nonsense along the lines of, “We, the gods, hereby declare that we are sick and tired of you and we want you to shut up for just three days.” His life, for the next three days, relies on the tree, and whatever happens to it, happens to him as well, and whatever the tree feels, he feels as well. You could correctly guess that on several occasions, we find him humiliating himself in front of his co-workers, when squirrels dig themselves into the tree or people come by and spray it with fertilizer. What really holds Jack’s life by a thread is that whenever he speaks a word, a tree loses a leaf (once he’s discovered this, at least two-hundred leaves have already vanished), and when there are no leaves left, he dies as well. I guess it’s crucial to repeat that this itself is essentially a one-joke movie, but even amongst the poor acting and script, it’s even worse because of how terrible that one joke is. We want Eddie Murphy to speak. The short little snippets and nonsense words he blurts out when necessary (if you couldn’t predict that his character gets begged to speak throughout the entire movie, you probably haven’t seen very many movies at all) simply are not enough. It’s like watching an Olympic swimming match on TV, with a camera that is constantly cutting over to shots of Michael Phelps sitting out in a wheelchair. We begin to lose interest at the rate the leaves fall.
Though not identifiable at first, it eventually becomes clear that occasional Adam Sandler collaborator Steve Koren doesn’t quite know what kind of audience he is looking for in his script. The movie is riddled with a positive message: Don’t let anything get in the way of the love you share with your family. It’s a simple message we all should know pretty well by around age seven. But what kind of parent finds it acceptable when their seven-year-old is exposed to foul language, sex, self-inflicted harm, and the effects of drugs–even if those are all used…uhh…”humorously” to reach the bottom line? Let’s admit, once the message has been spoken, it presents the feel-good mood in a way that is successful in one way or another. Still, it’s nearly impossible to justify why such a crude (and boring!) route would be taken, before an hour or so has passed and our minds have already dismissed the film as yet another unabridged capsule of forgettable storytelling formula. A Thousand Words was filmed in 2008 and set for a 2009 release, but continually delayed due an arising separation of DreamWorks Pictures from Paramount Pictures and Viacom. The producers found it would be fitting to give the film a January 2012 release when Eddie Murphy announced he would be hosting the 84th Academy Awards (good thing he changed his mind). Of course, the slated release date changed several more times from there: March 23rd, then April 20th, and finally a limited release on March 9, 2012. I don’t believe any of the film’s six producers (one of whom is Nicolas Cage, whom we’d expect to do far better) knew how poorly the film would be received by both the box office and the critics; if that were so, they would have either kept such “helluloid” shelved away forever. It cost forty million to produce, but it’s easily worth far less.