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.
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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.