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.

Popular on Variety

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.

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

  • Joe Keery appears in Spree by

    'Spree': Film Review

    It didn’t seem like there was a large portion of the movie-going population who felt that Todd Phillips’ “Joker” was too subtle, in either its commentary on the modern era of those who are involuntarily celibate, or its homage-like appropriation of classic Martin Scorsese movies. But maybe writer-director-producer Eugene Kotlyarenko has other information, since that’s [...]

  • Dream Horse Review

    'Dream Horse': Film Review

    Louise Osmond’s 2015 Sundance audience winner “Dark Horse” was one of those documentaries that played like a crowdpleasing fiction, its real-life tale of underdog triumph had such a conventionally satisfying narrative arc. And indeed, the new “Dream Horse” proves that same material is indeed ready-made for dramatization. Euros Lyn’s feature springs few true surprises within [...]

  • Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein appear

    'The Nowhere Inn': Film Review

    Bill Benz’s high-concept rock mockumentary opens with a white limo speeding through the desert. The driver (Ezra Buzzington) has never heard of his passenger, the cult sensation Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent. “I’m not for everybody,” she shrugs. The driver is unsatisfied. “Don’t worry,” he glowers. “We’ll find out who [...]

  • THE_GLORIAS_DM_02-12-2019-00128.arw

    'The Glorias': Film Review

    In “The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s pinpoint timely yet rousingly old-fashioned biopic about the life and times of Gloria Steinem, the legendary feminist leader is portrayed by four different actresses at four different stages of her life. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young woman wearing a sari as she travels through India, planting her flag [...]

  • Black Bear

    'Black Bear': Film Review

    Actor-writer Lawrence Michael Levine’s first two directorial features, “Gabi on the Roof in July” and “Wild Canaries,” were idiosyncratic indie hipster comedies of a familiar stripe. His third, “Black Bear,” is a much trickier proposition, a kind of narrative puzzle box in which one might be hard-pressed to find a solution, or even determine there [...]

  • Wendy

    'Wendy': Film Review

    Eight long years after “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin brings that same rust-bottomed sense of magical realism to the legend of Peter Pan, reframing J.M. Barrie’s Victorian classic through the eyes of the eldest Darling. “Wendy,” as the indie-minded not-quite-family-film is aptly titled, re-envisions its title character as a working-class kiddo raised at [...]

  • The 40-Year-Old Version

    'The 40-Year-Old Version': Film Review

    In Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical comedy, the quadruple-threat plays “Rahda Blank,” a Harlem-based playwright who faces many of the same struggles and setbacks as her creator. It’s been more than a decade since Radha (as we’ll call the character) earned a promising “30 Under 30” award, and now, instead of getting her work produced, she’s teaching [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content