Given a minute, most people could come up with a list of movies in which some sort of supernatural event changes the heart of a flawed character for the better. Be it changing places with a friend or relative, being forced to only speak the truth, being given visions of the future, or whatever, the idea that some force can intervene and teach a lesson to someone that seems beyond the reach of reason is revisited with monotonous frequency. Well into that list of films, add one more.
In “A Thousand Words,” Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) is a successful literary agent. Part of his success stems from his method of reviewing manuscripts: he skims the first five and last five pages, picking out a basic plot and summarily judging it. Jack also lies his way through the day to avoid inconveniences like waiting in lines, and relies on his skill with monopolizing conversations to avoid hearing other’s opinions.
The film begins near the end with Jack wearing tape over his mouth, standing outside his wrecked home watering a dying tree. In his thoughts, he recounts the story of how he came to be in this state.
Learning that a famous spiritual leader, Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), has written a book, Jack resolves to sign him as a client without setting eyes on it. While visiting Dr. Sinja’s compound, Jack feigns enlightenment to get to speak to him. It is in the garden that Jack encounters a tree that gives him a splinter when he feigns care for trees for Sinja’s benefit. During their discussions, Sinja agrees to the deal, but can tell that Jack has obviously not seen the book.
That night, the tree mysteriously appears in Jacks yard. Learning that his gardener had nothing to do with the tree’s appearance, Jack assumes it is a gift from Dr. Sinja. When Sinja admits he had nothing to do with the tree, and he discovers that leaves fall from it when Jack speaks, he relates to Jack the story of another man that had the same bond formed with a tree. When all the leaves fell, the man died.
Realizing the implications, Jack attempts to live a few days without using his voice, while Dr. Sinja searches for an answer. It is these three days that provide the comedic backdrop for the first half of the film. Murphy tries his best to play the fool against the rest of the cast’s “straight man”. The possible exception being Clark Duke’s portrayal of the absurd intern Aaron Wiseberger.
Ordinarily, a comedic drama has a sprinkling of both throughout the film. In “A Thousand Words,” there is a string of comedic sketches based around Jack’s desire to avoid uttering a word, followed by a do-good sequence that could have been copied directly from Dickens if not for the setting. The comedy was difficult to sit through in its predictability and embarrassing simplicity. The drama was no less predictable, but mercifully not embarrassing.
“A Thousand Words” is a lower-middle quality film with nothing to generate anything but a desire to avoid seeing it again. It was on course to be much worse, but thankfully the comedy part of the formula ended soon enough for the drama to allow the story to recover, however slightly. Unfortunately this proves to be another disappointing outing for Eddie Murphy, all the more disappointing because of the attempt to revisit a tired plot device. I have to wonder if Murphy read the script before signing up.