A Thousand Words is one of those films you sit through with low expectations and then realize it had the potential to be better, and could have been a helluva lot worse. After the horrendous Norbit and the disastrous Meet Dave, Eddie Murphy teamed up with director Brian Robbins yet again to make this comedy about a slick agent who realizes he has only a few hundred words left to speak before he drops dead. They say the “third time’s the charm” and though A Thousand Words is a thousand miles away from being as good as one of Murphy’s weakest films, this is perhaps his best collaboration with Robbins to date. The problem is this film was shot four years ago and has been basically sitting on the shelf ever since. The movie got caught up in the debacle involving the DreamWorks Pictures separation from Paramount & Viacom with Murphy ultimately not stepping before the camera again until last year’s lukewarm caper Tower Heist.
Surprisingly, the film doesn’t really feel dated, although a rather weak Michael Jackson reference obviously shot preceding the pop star’s untimely death and the fact that Murphy carries the first version of the Phone are tell-tale signs. What’s interesting is that Murphy gives a rather strong performance here. His Jack McCall isn’t one of those a-hole characters that deservedly gets his comeuppance, but rather an insensitive guy who’s out of touch. He’s a dirty dealing agent, the best at what he does obviously, who gets results much to the chagrin of his boss Alison Janney. Even his simpleton assistant Clark Duke is in awe of how Murphy is able to close any deal and turn any situation into gold. The only one not impressed is his new wife Kerry Washington, who after giving birth to their first child, has watched as Murphy’s become emotionally distant. He’s content with their condo, his former bachelor pad with a view of a luxurious pool, while she consistently fails to convince him they need to start thinking about raising their son in an actual house.
New Zealand native Cliff Curtis, usually stuck playing some type of heavy or government agent, is actually quite pleasant as Indian New Age guru Dr. Sinja, whose new book Murphy desperately wants to publish. Only when he closes the deal does he get a look at the actual product which turns out to be no more than a five page pamphlet. Curtis is just as surprised as Murphy when a mysteriously Bodhi tree suddenly sprouts overnight in the garden next to his pool. Rather curiously, every time Murphy utters a word, a leave drops and we all know what a fast talking big mouth Murphy is. A rather nasty gash pops up on his own leg when he attempts to whack the tree with an ax and soon the agent and good doctor realize that Murphy and the tree are somehow magically connected. If this keeps up, what will happen to a tree when it loses all of its leaves may also happen to Murphy.
Whenever Murphy speaks, a leaf will fall from the tree. How about writing down what he has to say? That applies too and proves futile. Just as the tree reacts to what Murphy says, he reacts to what the tree experiences. Sudden heavy perspiration turns out to be a reaction to the tree getting watered by his gardener. There’s even one hilarious bit where he starts to get stoned at a crucial business meeting while the tree is being sprayed with pesticide. The thing is, the jokes run out rather quickly. Murphy not only has to contend with convincing a big company like Random House to buy Curtis’ book without speaking, but Washington is getting anxious, fearing that their relationship is doomed because he literally won’t talk to her. The comedy of errors only works for a little while and except for Curtis, Murphy never confides in anyone what he’s really going through. When Duke is finally clued in, the Hot Tub Time Machine star proves to be just another dim-wit character, never interesting or equipped with the comedic chops to share a scene with Murphy. Washington is an actress with great presence and though her character’s concerns are valid, it feels no different from the self-absorbed individuals she usually plays.
A Thousand Words is at its strongest when the story takes small dramatic turns. One of the rare times Murphy’s character shows his sensitive side is in the presence of Jack’s mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s in a retirement home, played by Ruby Dee. There’s a realistic back-story involving his deceased father who walked out on them years before, making for an explanation as to why Jack might be so out of touch. Murphy is quite brilliant in these moments, reminding us what a great actor he really is. Despite the fact that his character gets involved in some rather silly slapstick situations, this is Murphy’s most intelligent performance in quite some time. He’s not playing a caricature of himself like he has in later years or resorting to that stupid “Donkey” voice from the Shrek movies. More often than not, the story gets surprising dark and starts to lean towards the notion that when all the leaves fall from this magical tree, this guy might actually die.
The film apparently was given the opportunity to re-shoot a number of scenes last year. Though the final product isn’t really up to snuff with what we used to expect from Murphy, I’d hate to see how it looked in its original version. This feels more like a missed opportunity than a complete waste of time. Murphy isn’t on his A-game here, but I felt more of an effort coming from his performance than in recent years. More often than not there are brief glimpses of him with fire in his eyes, suggesting enthusiasm for the material. I miss THAT Eddie Murphy and the way things have been going lately, this may represent the last time we see him.