A film review by Craig J. Koban March 20, 2012



2012, PG, 91 mins.


Jack McCall: Eddie Murphy / Caroline McCall: Kerry Washington / Aaron Wiseberger: Clark Duke / Dr. Sinja: Cliff Curtis / Samantha Davis: Alison Janney / Annie McCall: Ruby Dee / Shrink: Lou Saliba

Directed by Brian Robbins / Screenplay by Steve Koren.

I could very easily come up with well over a thousand ways to tell you just how terrible the new Eddie Murphy comedy A THOUSAND WORDS is, but I think I will try to spare you.  

Just consider this: Eddie Murphy has always been considered one of the best motor-mouths of comedy: sometimes he is uproarious when just babbling away at a dizzying pace.  His words, choice of words, and manner of enunciating those words are his true comic gifts.  Now comes a film like A THOUSAND WORDS that firmly believes that the best manner to harness Murphy’s unique and often-imitated skill set is…to have him be silent though a majority of the film. 

Huh?  Come again? 

That’s right, folks!  Just imagine the film pitch to the studio chiefs: “Let’s make a comedy where we reduce Murphy to verbal silence nearly all the way though it…what do ya say?”  Now, to be fair, perhaps the star thought it would be a special type of challenge to discard his famous lightning fast verbal riffs and instead be reduced to a silent star headlining a comedy, which would, in turn, force him to rely on physicality to secure laughs.  I can appreciate that, but the situations that this film places Murphy in to score big guffaws from his inability to speak are mostly dead-on-arrival.  Plus, do we seriously want to see a star like him reduced to silence?  Asking Murphy to stay hushed in a film is like asking Jim Carrey not to make rubbery faces and contort his body to humorous effect in a film.  See what I mean? 

Murphy at least does get to natter away as only he can in the opening sections of the film, playing a smooth and rapid-fire talking book agent named Jack McCall, who seems to live for scoring big game clients, making his co-workers and underlings despise him, and his daily hit of caffeinated glory at his local Starbucks, the later which is shown in one of the most painfully obvious product placement shots I’ve seen (Murphy sips his latte at one point and – while holding his Starbucks coffee up to the camera – screams out “This coffee is incredible!”).   His seems to have little time for a home life, despite the fact that he has a loving and gorgeous wife (played by the very gorgeous Kerry Washington) and a baby.  She thinks that he has no time for her and his child, but Jack just seems too caught up with his vocation to care or acknowledge her concerns. 



Jack’s main mission is to nab his Holy Grail client, Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis, a very good actor slumming away in this film’s dreck)  who is a New Age peace, love, and universal harmony guru that has a book that Jack thinks could be a huge International best seller.  Jack makes a rather pathetic attempt to get to know the guru at his commune, which the doctor can see right through.  Jack's backdoor approach does come back to haunt him, though, seeing as he becomes the unwilling victim of a karmic curse on his soul.  When he returns home later that day he sees, to his astonishment, a magical Bodhi tree sprout right from the grown fully formed.  Here’s the kicker: for every single word that Jack utters a leaf will fall from the tree.  When all the leaves are gone then the tree will die…oh…and so will Jack. 

Obviously, this presents an incredible challenge for the poor hapless Jack, considering that he’s in a job that requires him to speak all the time.  There are a few moments of giggle-inducing inspiration here when Jack’s problematic issue is exploited, as is the case when he has to think on his feat and use a series of talking dolls and action figures (ranging from the Terminator to Austin Powers to Al Pacino’s Scarface) to respond to queries on a conference call; he also gets a nice laugh miming how he wants extra milk in his morning Starbucks latte.     

Yet, A THOUSAND WORDS is embarrassingly short on inspired ideas when it comes to its potentially funny premise.  Instead of really going for broke with Jack’s absurd condition, the film just uses it to set up a dreadfully unfunny sight gags where we see the usually hysterical Murphy cringe and whimper through them as if he does not want to be on set.  Jack has a relationship with his assistant (the bland and unfunny Clarke Duke) who seems to have no problem with his boss’ sudden and unexplained silence.  He agrees to speak for him at a very important business luncheon that devolves in rapid succession.  You know you’re in trouble when a film solely relies on Clarke Duke to generate laughs in the same scene that involves Eddie Murphy. 

Much of the film’s premise is only haphazardly explained and, at times, makes not a hill of beans worth of sense.  Jack is not only unable to talk, but even if he writes a sentence to communicate something that counts towards his deadly word count (oddly, the film never explains whether texting would count).  Also, it’s frankly amazing how Jack simply does not feign a sudden illness - like chronic laryngitis - to get him through the few days that he thinks he cursed to endure (the film explains that Dr. Sinja has a solution for him, but is conveniently out of town for three days, leaving Jack stranded; he never thinks to email him…or…would that count?).  Then the film really, really strains when it comes to his relationship with Jack's wife, who becomes really perturbed by his lack of communication.  Honestly, couldn’t Jack spare a sentence or two to explain his situation to her or, at the very least, take her to the tree to prove his situation? 

To make matters worse there is a monumentally misguided attempt to provide some schmaltzy tear-inducing drama into the film, featuring – no less – Jack’s strained relationship with his Alzheimer’s afflicted mother and sad past with his father who abandoned him as a kid.  A THOUSAND WORDS, by this late point in the story, browbeats us with its attempts to infuse a soul-searching pathos into Jack’s predicament where he has to find his inner calm and contemplate a solution to not only his problem, but with his daddy, mommy, and spousal issues.  For a film to set itself up as broad slapstick farce and then take an absurd 180 degree tonal turn in its final act into searing drama is all kinds of wrong here; it just rings as desperately false. 

Then again, perhaps A THOUSAND WORDS – like its main character – was doomed from the start.  The film was directed by Brian Robbins (who made one of the worst films of the last decade in NORBIT, also staring Murphy), was inexplicably co-produced by Nicolas Cage (whose recent artistic choices have been dubious at best), was not given a critic screening (typically the kiss of quality death for a film), and, worst of all, was made way, way back in 2008 and finally and unceremoniously dumped on our filmgoing laps this year (the studio did not so much release this film as they just abandoned it to the muliplexes).  Considering the joy of seeing Murphy channel all of his street wise comic instincts in what seemed like his comeback effort last year in TOWER HEIST, it's a teeth-gratingly disappointing to see him flounder aimlessly in a joyless and mercilessly insipid comedy like A THOUSAND WORDS; I’m not sure that even a thousand re-writes could have saved this material.

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