(by Dustin Putman
There was enough of a hint of the old and edgy Eddie Murphy in 2011's pleasurable action-comedy "Tower Heist" that one wouldn't be wrong to hope he might hang around for a bit to reclaim the career he once had. Such thoughts would be premature. Murphy is back in treacly, pandering, garden-variety mode with "A Thousand Words," a woebegone project that has been sitting on the shelf since 2008. Studios hesitate none to release bad movies each week, yet it's understandable why this one has had such a sketchy, sordid trip to multiplexes. Beyond the appearance of its star and a premise with potential, "A Thousand Words" is an unmarketable nightmare that has no idea what it wants to do or be, thereby opting to do and be nothing at all. Comedy is out of place and embarrassingly placid. Its emotional side is as subtle as a steamroller flattening a marching band. As for all the mystical mumbo-jumbo, well, let's just say 2008's "The Love Guru" was more inspiring. Article continues below
Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) is selfish and irresponsible, in need of a wake-up call and a rose-smelling. A literary agent who doesn't bother to read the books he takes on, Jack's life is suddenly put into a tailspin following a run-in with the New Age-y spiritual advisor (Cliff Curtis) he's trying to sign and the inexplicable sudden appearance of a Bodhi tree in his backyard. With each word he now speaks (or, for that matter, writes down), a leaf falls from its branches. As his usually failed attempts at silence begin to alienate his frustrated colleagues and wife Caroline (Kerry Washington), Jack has every reason to believe that once the tree is bare, it will also spell his demise.
Jack is in a sticky situation, and he's only got one chance at redemption: to become a better person, of course! It's a quaint but universally identifiable character arc, but one that "A Thousand Words" botches big time. For one, Jack doesn't truly seem like such a bad guy at the start, his biggest offenses being that he doesn't share his wife's desire to move and he occasionally pulls a fast one on the people at Starbucks so he can sweep to the front of the line. "This coffee is incredible!" Jack remarks in the next scene while pointing to the impeccably-placed logo on his cup. Worse than who he starts the film as is the complete confusion over what to do with him once the loopy conflict of the plot is introduced. Director Brian Robbins (2008's "Meet Dave") and writer Steve Koren (2011's "Jack and Jill") predominately aim for broad humor that intrinsically goes against the darkness of Jack's plight. When he finally tells Caroline what's been going on, she chalks it up to a mid-life crisis because, who knows, maybe she's used to seeing fully grown and freshly mulched trees sprout up from the ground instantaneously. Set-piece after set-piece thuds to the ground with a bomb-like boom, and when all else fails, a gross gay caricature (dressed in a pirate costume, no less) is introduced for a couple egregious walk-ons.
Eddie Murphy (2009's "Imagine That") is on auto-pilot as Jack McCall, going through the motions while scrunching his face up real good every time he is forced to utter precious syllables. Never does he come off as a real person, but as a celebrity playing another throwaway part for money. The wonderful Kerry Washington (2010's "For Colored Girls") is dumbed-down and, in a scene where she dresses like a dominatrix to try and seduce Jack, made to look foolish as the nagging, disgruntled Caroline. Wasted supporting turns from Clark Duke (2010's "Hot Tub Time Machine"), as Jack's assistant Aaron, and Allison Janney (2011's "The Help"), as boss Samantha Davis, follow. The usually scene-stealing Janney is especially misused, notable only for a scene where she gets a breadstick shoved up her nose. It's not half as amusing as it may sound.
With only a few leaves remaining as "A Thousand Words" reaches its third act, composer John Debney (2011's "New Year's Eve") pulls out the warbly string section for a bombarding music score that might as well be hitting the viewer over the head while yelling, "Feel, damn it!" Cue Jack's Alzheimer's-suffering mom (Ruby Dee), a temporary marital break-up, and a woozy finale set in both a cemetery and a golden-hued field that wants to be meaningful but instead feels supremely pedestrian and cornball. At some point in its inception, "A Thousand Words" might have meant well. What has reached the screen, however, is unrecognizable, a desperate, amateurish trifle of confused tonal shifts, ill-advised editing, and soppy, disingenuous grand-standing. It's not the least bit funny or touching, and it all goes down about as smoothly as cyanide laced with rusted nails. It took "A Thousand Words" four years to see the light of day. Another four - or thousand - wouldn't have hurt anyone.