Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2012

A Thousand Words


Eddie Murphy's descent into irrelevance continues in the half-baked 'A Thousand Words'

A Thousand Words
Paramount Pictures
Director: Brian Robbins
Screenplay: Steve Koren
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Clark Duke, Kerry Washington, Cliff Curtis, Jack McBrayer, Ruby Dee and Allison Janney
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes
(out of four)

Jack McCall can talk anyone into doing anything. We know this about Jack because of the following line of dialogue: "I'm Jack McCall. I can talk anyone into doing anything!" So there you go.

The problem with the basic conceit of A Thousand Words is that we see Jack (Eddie Murphy) in action during the film's earlygoing, and it becomes clear to us (though hopelessly unclear to the filmmakers) that this man would not be able to convince anyone, in the world, to do anything, ever. He's a literary agent whose business is schmoozing writers and publishers alike, but as we see him in the field working his so-called magic, our collective intelligence is insulted. There's not a writer or publisher on the planet who would be swayed by his act. He's not persuasive in the slightest.

This is something you see quite a bit, actually - a film that's not nearly as smart as its main character is intended to be. Ever seen a movie or TV show where a character is supposed to be a "brilliant" writer, but when we finally get to hear some of that brilliant writing it turns out to be amateurish crap? (Showtime's Californication comes to mind.) Yeah, A Thousand Words is kind of like that. It has an idea about a character who's a persuasive, smooth-talking genius, but no clue how to actually write that character.

Laying all the blame on Eddie Murphy is the obvious reaction; the erosion of his comedic skills (and/or ability to choose projects) makes him an easy target. But that's really not fair to writer Steve Koren - surely his inept screenplay can't be overlooked. In any case, there's no excuse for a movie as woefully incapable of pulling off its premise as A Thousand Words is.

Like 2009's Imagine That, this film stars Murphy as a high-ranking career man who - through a mysterious supernatural phenomenon - is pushed to the brink of ruin and forced to re-evaluate his priorities.

In this case, his character makes the fatal mistake of screwing with Eastern mysticism. This violates a basic behavioral principle for movie characters: Never mess with anyone or anything that can put a curse on you.

Jack, ever the opportunist, decides to target as his next potential client a spiritual guru named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis) who has developed a massive global following. Rumor has it he's put his wisdom down on paper; Jack, naturally, sees the chance to make millions.

In a display of the kind of salesmanship bravura Jack is apparently known for, his visit to Dr. Sinja's sanctuary involves completely disrupting a group meditation session (with apparently no awareness that he has done so), quite blatantly lying to Dr. Sinja about having read the book and bought into its teachings, and in general making as much of a nuisance of himself as possible. (This, the movie argues, is the performance of a good agent.)

With a twinkle in his eye, Dr. Sinja agrees - followed by the requisite ultra-dramatic close-up of the handshake, assuring us that something crazy and magical is about to go down. Indeed it does, fate coming in the form of a tree from Dr. Sinja's garden that miraculously finds itself in Jack's backyard. You know the rest. Every time he speaks, the tree loses a leaf. Once the leaves are gone, presumably, Jack will die.

The idea of a man who talks his way into (or out of) anything suddenly being stripped of the ability to speak is a promising enough comedic setup. But this movie does such a poor job establishing the first part of the equation, the payoff doesn't stand much of chance.

Jack's newfound handicap leads to hilarious scenes like: Jack using an Austin Powers doll as his surrogate voice during a teleconference; Jack getting high from chemicals sprayed on the tree (yes, they're metaphysically connected, like Elliott and E.T.) just as he's sitting down for an all-important business lunch; and Jack's wife (Kerry Washington) getting dressed up in spectacularly hot lingerie, asking him to talk dirty, and getting frustrated and storming out when he won't/can't. Washington is who I feel sorry for the most. She deserves better roles than this one, which requires that her character be completely oblivious at all times.

Then again, it would be hard for anyone - Murphy, Washington, Allison Janney, Ruby Dee, what have you - to look good in this movie. It has too little curiosity about its characters (or its premise) to do any of them justice.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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