Mark Reviews Movies

A Thousand Words


1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Brian Robbins

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Kerry Washington, Clark Duke, Cliff Curtis, Allison Janney, Ruby Dee

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual situations including dialogue, language and some drug-related humor)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 3/9/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2012

One would think the lesson would be simple enough: If a person only had a limited number of words he or she could speak, that person would choose them wisely. Everything in A Thousand Words is set up to relay that message. The protagonist is a professional B.S. artist, who thinks he "can convince anyone to do anything" simply by talking. Most of the words that come out of his mouth are hollow or dishonest. Compliments are just a means to a selfish end; near the beginning of the movie, he pretends that his wife has gone into labor with twins, just so he can cut to the front of the long line at the coffee house.

It's simple, right? Here's the thing, though: That's not the lesson screenwriter Steve Koren ultimately gives the character. No, instead it's some weird combination of New Age mysticism and pop psychology about reaching down deep into one's soul/most repressed emotions and coming to terms with the pain that causes the anger that drives those words.

In a most obvious way, then, the movie's central gimmick is unnecessary. By the way, that conceit is a tree that sheds one leaf for every word that the character says or writes (In one case, casts aside two for an obscene gesture, though, in a logical gap, other gestures don't appear to offend the tree enough to lose any leaves). If all the leaves go, the New Age mystic argues, it will die, and, since the hero is spiritually connected to the tree, he will die, too. His words are killing him. Again, how do the character's sore feelings toward his absent father, shoehorned into the story with sappy flashbacks, fit into this at all?

The man in question is Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy), a big-time literary agent. He still lives in his bachelor pad with his wife Caroline (Kerry Washington) and baby; she feels as if the two of them are guests in their own home. He sees a psychiatrist (Lou Saliba) but just rambles about nonsense for the entirety of their sessions. He doesn't even read the books he's trying to sell to publishers, because, as he informs his aggressively eccentric assistant Aaron (Clark Duke), everything he needs to know about the book are in the first and last five pages.

Jack's newest prospect is a New Age spiritual leader named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), who apparently has written a book, so Jack goes to Sinja's headquarters, mocks the meditative chanting, and feigns a moment of enlightenment to get some alone time with Sinja. He agrees to allow Jack to represent him (The book, it turns out, is only five pages long and appears, Aaron tells his boss, to be written directly to Jack; the weird thing is that at no time does Jack even bother to read the book), and on his way out, Jack cuts himself on a tree—the same tree that eventually appears in his backyard and counts down the number of words he's allowed to say before he will, apparently, die.

Let us try to forget the movie's poor thematic juggling for a moment and concentrate on its sense of humor. The central gag is that Jack must try to remain silent while going through his daily routine and encountering a series of personal and professional crises. The joke is strangely inconsistent; he's more than willing to say a few words in the most minor of circumstances but decides to stay completely silent when, for example, his wife grows frustrated with the fact that he won't talk to her. Many of the movie's conflicts could be avoided early on if he were to use a few words to explain his situation (or call in sick to work) to those closest to him.

Instead, we get Murphy pantomiming like his character's life depended on it, which, of course, it does. He tries to order coffee in an extended routine. He sits in silence with his psychiatrist as they exchange increasingly disturbing looks (Director Brian Robbins apparently forgot to tell the actors he was shooting the scene in close-up, making the scene close to a horror show of exaggeration). He uses talking dolls from around the office to hold a meeting over the phone.

It's best to ignore the obvious, inconsequential jokes about how whatever happens to the tree happens to Jack. When the gardener sprays it with pesticide, Jack gets high on the fumes; when he waters it, Jack begins sweating. Both, naturally, happen in the middle of meetings.

The most incredible thing about the tree is that it also seems to have the power to turn everyone around Jack into complete idiots. Sinja is only important to the plot because he's the best at charades; everyone else is incapable of even basic comprehension, leading A Thousand Words to offer such non-starter jokes as Jack winding up in the hotel room of a man dressed as a pirate. Don't ask.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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