A Thousand Words

Pic springs from the seed of an interesting idea: that the ideal Eddie Murphy movie might be one in which the actor keeps his mouth shut.

Jack McCall - Eddie Murphy
Caroline McCall - Kerry Washington
Dr. Sinja - Cliff Curtis
Aaron Wiseberger - Clark Duke
Annie McCall - Ruby Dee
Samantha Davis - Allison Janney

The tale of a smooth-talking, self-absorbed book agent forced to turn over a new leaf when he finds that every utterance brings him one step closer to death, “A Thousand Words” springs from the seed of an interesting idea: that the ideal Eddie Murphy movie might be one in which the actor keeps his mouth shut. Alas, even Murphy’s largely wordless, physically adroit performance can’t redeem this tortured exercise in high-concept spiritualist hokum, which suggests a cross between “Liar Liar” and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” but with more kitsch and gay jokes. Commercial prospects look none too fertile.

Finally opening nearly four years after its completion, this Paramount release of a DreamWorks title — one of numerous projects left up in the air in the wake of the two companies’ messy 2008 divorce — was initially shelved to distance it from Murphy’s back-to-back flops “Meet Dave” (2008) and “Imagine That” (2009). Though it reteams the actor with “Meet Dave” and “Norbit” helmer Brian Robbins, “A Thousand Words” bears a stronger resemblance to “Imagine That,” another blandly sentimental fable of self-improvement in which supernatural forces conspire to turn a slick company man into father-of-the-year material.

A high-powered literary agent who never reads, Jack McCall (Murphy) applies his fast-talking, relentlessly superficial style to every aspect of his life. Strutting and talking a blue streak wherever he goes, he never lets his shrink (Lou Saliba) get a word in edgewise, mistreats his eager-to-please assistant (Clark Duke), and neglects his increasingly disgruntled wife, Caroline (Kerry Washington), and their young son (Emanuel Ragsdale).

But Jack is forced to confront his shortcomings when he signs influential New Age guru Dr. Sinja (a droll Cliff Curtis), shortly after which a large tree suddenly sprouts in Jack’s backyard, faster than a beanstalk and no less life-altering. To his alarm, the tree sheds a leaf for every word he speaks, leading Dr. Sinja to conclude that Jack has approximately 1,000 words left before the tree is bare and his life is presumably finished.

The rest of the film amounts to a feature-length game of charades, as Jack attempts to negotiate a series of high-stakes professional and personal situations while saying as little as possible. In an especially cruel twist, even the act of writing depletes Jack’s word quota, making it all the harder for him to explain his preposterous dilemma to others, and calling forth from Murphy a typically agile display of spastic body language, exasperated facial twitches and other tried-and-true forms of physical shtick.

Yet if the pic means to teach a lesson about the importance of choosing one’s words wisely, Steve Koren’s screenplay can’t be accused of practicing what it preaches. Even overlooking the lumbering predictability of Jack’s redemption, the comedy feels as forced and flat-footed as the uplift, and scenes of tense marital discord and drippy dream sequences sit uncomfortably alongside slapstick hijinks and a few smirkingly homophobic gags. The inspirational messages imparted to Jack and the audience — love your wife and kids; resolve your festering daddy issues; speak with actions, not words — are slathered on with a trowel.

The solid supporting cast does as much with the material as possible. Making the most of his scene-stealing opportunities is Duke, who takes his nervous-dweeb routine to amusing ends, while Curtis manages to invest a white-robed stereotype with droll humor and attitude. The women, by contrast, are joke-free: Ruby Dee is sealed in grave, dignified amber as Jack’s dementia-stricken mother, while Washington is notably ill served as Caroline, a total pill whose happiness is little more than a checkbox on her husband’s self-help agenda. In the end, Jack’s metaphysical speech impediment scarcely matters, so thoroughly does “A Thousand Words” enable and encourage the character’s narcissism.

Tech credits are fine if unremarkable. Robbins frequently plants Murphy dead-center in the widescreen frame, the flat inactivity surrounding his frantic emoting furthering the sense of the performance as the pic’s one and only trick.

Popular on Variety

A Thousand Words

Production: A Paramount release of a DreamWorks presentation of a Work After Midnight/Saturn Films production. Produced by Alain Chabat, Stephanie Danan, Nicolas Cage, Norma Golightly, Brian Robbins, Sharla Sumpter Bridgett. Executive producer, Jane Bartelme. Co-producers, Lars Winther, Marc Haimes. Directed by Brian Robbins. Screenplay, Steve Koren.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Clark Mathis; editor, Ned Bastille; music, John Debney; music supervisor, Madonna Wade-Reed; production designer, Clay A. Griffith; art director, Jay Pelissier; set designer, Robert Sissman; set decorator, Wayne Shepherd; costume designer, Mary Vogt; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat/SDDS), Willie D. Burton; sound designer, Elliott L. Koretz; re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Frank A. Montano; special effects coordinator, Joe D. Ramsey; visual effects supervisor, Raymond McIntyre Jr.; visual effects, Pixel Magic; assistant director, Lars Winther; associate producers, Caroline Bresard; Nicolas Giraudi; casting, Juel Bestrop, Seth Yanklewitz. Reviewed at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, Los Angeles, March 7, 2012. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.

With: Jack McCall - Eddie Murphy
Caroline McCall - Kerry Washington
Dr. Sinja - Cliff Curtis
Aaron Wiseberger - Clark Duke
Annie McCall - Ruby Dee
Samantha Davis - Allison JanneyWith: Emanuel Ragsdale, Lou Saliba.

More Film

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content