REVIEW: Eddie Murphy Mugs, Flails and Fails in A Thousand Words
The troubles marring the relationship between fast-talking literary agent Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) and his wife and the mother of his baby Caroline (Kerry Washington) are nothing next to the issues A Thousand Words has in marrying wacky physical comedy and a new age exploration of absentee fathers. The film, which is directed by Norbit's Brian Robbins and written by Bruce Almighty's Steve Koren, is being slung at audiences as a broad family laffer of the Jim Carrey school, but spends just as much time trying to be a serious tale about letting go of childhood resentments and accepting mortality. The "deep" bits aren't, despite a climactic shot in which Murphy actually frolics with his childhood self through a Terrence Malick-style dreamy field of wheat, and the parts that aim to be funny rarely succeed at that either, telegraphing their punchlines so far in advance that they don't really need to follow through on them.
Murphy's journey into the lucrative and yet so often awful world of family-friendly comedies is one that's been taken by plenty of comics, but he wears it worse than most, his edges sanded off and a too calculated look in his eyes as he prepares for the soggy reconciliations with which these stories always end. It doesn't help that even the pratfalls in A Thousand Words look tired and recycled. McCall climbs a tree to rescue a cat only to have it attack him, making him fall. McCall bluffs his way to the front of a long line at Starbucks by pretending his wife's in labor. (I realize this is really not the type of film at which to nitpick, but beyond the vaudeville-era mustiness of the gag, why would anyone believe that someone in a wild rush to the hospital would still stop for coffee?) McCall causes multiple car accidents trying to help a blind man cross the street without being able to speak to him. The central conceit in A Thousand Words is that, thanks to a deal he's made with Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), "the most popular nondenominational religious leader on the planet," McCall finds that a mystical tree has suddenly grown in the backyard of his swank house of a hill. For every word he says or writes, a leaf falls off, and presumably when they're all gone both he and the tree will die. (The tree raises some mystical copyediting issues -- "dickhead" merits two leaves, but so does "sorta classy.")
McCall obviously has some issues to work through, including the usual ones of working too hard and being emotionally unavailable, factors the film links back to his dad leaving his mom (Ruby Dee) when he was young. Caroline is so upset by his apparent lack of commitment (he refuses to sell his bachelor pad in order to move them into a more child-appropriate house and neighborhood) and unwillingness to communicate (something stepped up by the arrival of the tree) that she leaves him, though not before a laugh-free scene in which she tries to reinvigorate their relationship by wearing vinyl lingerie and breaking out furry handcuffs. That sequence, like most of the other comedic set-pieces, has the feel of something that went from brainstorming board right to the screen, as the film strains its way through every possible scenario that would be awkward when you're not supposed to talk -- ordering coffee, making an international call via an operator, making a deal over the phone, having a business meeting. When the film actually stumbles on a laugh, it seems almost an accident, as when Murphy's character, high because of pesticides (don't ask), inserts a breadstick up Allison Janney's nose.
Murphy rolls his eyes and mugs ferociously at the camera -- A Thousand Words is the miming showcase the world never asked for -- but it's Hot Tub Time Machine's Clark Duke, playing McCall's assistant Aaron Wiseberger, who walks away with the film's best scene when he's forced to fill in for his boss at a high-powered dinner during which McCall can't speak. The only way he knows how to handle a business deal is by channelling his boss, and the entire joke is that he's a scrawny white kid offering fist bumps and telling someone "Sit your ass down!" But it's mostly funny because he's trying to pull off a decent Eddie Murphy. Remember Eddie Murphy? He used to be hilarious.