One of the familiar perils of seeing a theatrical release is sitting in front of a vocal viewer who clearly can’t follow what’s going on. Who hasn’t had an experience with someone in a theater stage-whispering “Who is that man? Why is he so mad? Why isn’t the oil well working?” Among the minor pros of the ridiculous new Eddie Murphy vehicle A Thousand Words—now hitting theaters after four years on a studio shelf—is that it makes such questions unnecessary, even for the most addled audience members. Not only does its plot proceed in a direct, unambiguous line from point A to point B, the film stops over and over to remind viewers where both those points are. Every emotion is loudly broadcast, every development repeatedly telegraphed. Kids who can’t keep up with the demanding complexities of Sesame Street will be able to follow this one.
Murphy stars as a garrulous go-getter of a literary agent who clearly needs a cinematic lesson about adjusting his priorities: He starts the film barking demands into his cell phone, then grimacing when his wife (Kerry Washington) hands him their toddler. He fakes a phone call from a wife in labor in order to line-jump at Starbucks. He mistreats the little people in his life, like his harried assistant (Clark Duke), who has to tweeze all the non-yellow-moon marshmallows out of his boss’ Lucky Charms. And above all, he talks a blue streak: In a typical bit of let-me-spell-out-the-subtext dialogue, he announces to a staff meeting at his agency, “This is what I do! I can talk anyone into anything!”
Then, after he lies to a placid guru (Cliff Curtis) while ignoring a spiritual message about the value of silence, Murphy becomes magically bonded to a tree, which sheds a leaf for every word he says. (Or writes, or even communicates; when he flips off the tree in anger, it drops two leaves to represent his “Fuck you.”) Once it loses all its leaves, Curtis says, it will no doubt die—and Murphy with it. In theory, the resulting enforced silence leads Murphy to understand which words are truly important, and absorb the value of stillness and self-examination. In practice, he mostly learns that if he doesn’t constantly fill the air with chatter, everyone around him—including Washington, Duke, his boss Allison Janney, Starbucks barista Jack “Kenneth the page” McBrayer, and others—will leap to the most idiotic conclusions imaginable about what his huge gestures and silly faces are attempting to convey.
A Thousand Words has its roots in any number of redemption comedies where supernatural phenomena put cartoonishly awful people through comic hell to teach them life lessons—Groundhog Day, Scrooged, Freaky Friday and its many offshoots—but it most strongly resembles the 1997 Jim Carrey vehicle Liar Liar, in which a similar paranormal contrivance prompts some goofy sincerity after about 80 minutes of extremely broad mugging and flailing. A Thousand Words is low-tech and highbrow by modern Murphy standards—no fat suits, no dual roles, very little crass humor or CGI gimcrackery, and a protagonist that’s marginally more nuanced and less one-dimensional than in most such films. And while the ending is wretchedly fakey and predictable, Murphy in subdued mode gives it a little authentic sweetness.
But robbing Murphy of his voice means replacing his most potent weapon—the charismatic blue-streak babble that made his name in comedy and in films like 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop—with a single gag, repeated over and over. Murphy compensates by acting extra-super-hard, with his eyes bugging out and cords standing out in his neck as he attempts to make his frustration and confusion as hilarious and obvious as possible. Meanwhile, director Brian Robbins (whose last two movies, Norbit and Meet Dave, were also Murphy vehicles) achieves the equivalent in obviousness by cutting back to leaves falling off the tree practically every time Murphy speaks, in case someone’s forgotten. They won’t have. They couldn’t possibly.