Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Thousand Words

The Sad Muzzling (And Blindfolding) Of Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy as Jack McCall in "A Thousand Words", directed by Brian Robbins. 
Paramount Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, March 10
, 2012

"A Thousand Words", the new Eddie Murphy comedy which opened yesterday across the U.S. and Canada, sums up Mr. Murphy's flagging career, once so great and phenomenal.  This film, completed in 2009, finally sees the light of day in 2012.  

Directed by Brian Robbins and written by Steve Koren, "A Thousand Words" follows fast-talking, verbose literary agent Jack McCall (Mr. Murphy), who signs his biggest client, a revered spiritual guru named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), who promises good things for Jack.  Jack's wife Caroline (Kerry Washington) and their young son live in a house she complains about. 

One of the many nonsensical things about this film is that Jack doesn't read.  (How did he become a literary agent?)  Dr. Sinja's promises don't materialize.  Before Jack knows it a bonsai tree or a reasonable facsimile thereof, appears in his backyard.  For each word Jack speaks or writes a leaf falls off the tree.  Jack is cursed: if all the leaves fall off the tree Jack will die.

Jack's office assistant Aaron (Clark Duke) makes things more difficult for Jack at times, and it's hard to tell whether Aaron is helping Jack by putting him out of his misery or if he's sabotaging the film, which takes one or two bizarre about-faces, including for Aaron.  Mr. Duke gets to do and say some of the things that made Mr. Murphy, who hasn't had an entertaining film to boast about since the lively, farcical "Boomerang" twenty years ago, such a box-office smash hit. 

In "A Thousand Words" it's sad that Mr. Murphy's character is without a word to speak for at least 30 minutes, which is either good or bad depending on how you view the actor, who hinted at his dramatic chops in "Dreamgirls" six years ago.  It's as if the filmmakers here are putting a punctuation mark on a declining career.  There was a time years ago that film critics might have staged some kind of mini-revolt if an Eddie Murphy film wasn't screened in advance for the press.  These days hardly a whisper of discontent is uttered.  (Surprise, surprise: "A Thousand Words" was not screened in advance.)

Dolled up like a golden, nostalgic memoir, "A Thousand Words" is meant to be a fable about treasuring life, saying meaningful things and listening to people beyond the sound of your own voice.  The execution of this film however, is not up to snuff.  Mr. Robbins cobbles together part-Hallmark, part-drama, part-melancholic mire to get us to feel that Jack's troubles are weighty.  Mr. Robbins tries to make points that will impact us on an emotional level, but the problem is that because much of the film is poorly staged, developed, written and acted, the sudden diversion of "A Thousand Words" into melodrama and elysian-like seriousness are hollow and exploitive.  There aren't sufficient reservoirs of feeling for Jack and his plight because Mr. Robbins and company simply haven't cared enough about developing their film.  Perhaps they thought Mr. Murphy would just turn up and dig deep for something from his hallowed glory days. 

To some extent Mr. Robbins, a good friend of Mr. Murphy's, has helped hasten the comic genius's decline on the big screen, shoehorning him into disastrous projects like this one, and the deplorable "Norbit" and WTF-ness of "Meet Dave", utterly filthy, incomprehensible films that can most politely be described as big mistakes.  In truth, there are one or two laughs in "A Thousand Words" and good music but the film overall is awkward, showcasing uncertainty and lacking confidence.  We've all seen the following predictable moments before: an angry cat, a licentious man a protagonist gets trapped with in an elevator, an almost-naked Mr. Murphy on the sidewalk. 

Mr. Murphy had a sharper comic sense 25 years ago.  He needs to write his material instead of getting trapped in ill-conceived designs and contours that he has to work within.  Regrettably, the big screen comedy world has passed Mr. Murphy by.  Films like "A Thousand Words" and Brett Ratner's 2011 film "Tower Heights" only reconfirm this.  One scene in "A Thousand Words" that encapsulates this extraordinary comic's big screen decline comes early on in a Starbucks.  Jack wows a long line of waiting patrons with a lie, is ushered at their behest to the front of the line only to be given the stinky-eye by two construction workers who are first in line.  They aren't buying the Kool-Aid Jack that is selling, and these days the general public isn't buying Mr. Murphy's comedic chops they way they used to.  Gone, but hopefully not for good, are the cutting-edge improvisation and effectiveness of Mr. Murphy's comic smarts in "48 HRS." (his best work), "Beverly Hills Cop", "Trading Places" and to a smaller extent "Coming To America".

It was a mistake for such fine actors as the great Ruby Dee (here as Jack's Alzheimer's-stricken mother), Ms. Washington (horribly misused here) and Allison Janney (as Jack's boss) to hop on board this wild, runaway train of a mess.  They all had to know that the script was poor.  They all want paychecks, as do we all.  They all likely held their breaths and dove in to the mire like brave soldiers.  At least Ms. Washington, Mr. Murphy and Ms. Janney all wear purple well in this film, whose slick fashion-conscious wardrobe is the only thing worth watching it for.

You don't need a thousand words to describe "A Thousand Words".  Just one will do.

With: Emmanuel Ragsdale, Lou Saliba.

"A Thousand Words" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual situations including dialogue, language and some drug-related humor.  The film's running time is one hour and 31 minutes.

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