“A Thousand Words” is this latest comedy offering from veteran funny man Eddie Murphy.
In it, his outspoken, dishonest, self-absorbed character becomes mysteriously bonded to a magical tree. For every word he speaks or writes, a single leaf falls. When the leaves all fall, he will die.
It’s almost a metaphor for Murphy’s career if you think about it.
The high concept of this film is that Murphy – here playing an obnoxious, skeevey, motor-mouthed literary agent - accidentally cuts himself on a magical tree while trying to sign a modern guru as a client. Later that evening, the tree transplants itself, rumbling up out of the ground in his back yard. It is quickly discovered that Murphy and the tree are now connected. Whenever he speaks or writes, one leaf falls off of the tree for every word he creates. The tree’s health is also connected to Murphy’s health, so as it loses leaves and strength, so does he. That’s not the extent of the “connection” though, Murphy is also physically connected to the sensations of the tree, so when he tries to take an ax to it, he injures himself, and when squirrels run around in it, he’s hopelessly tickled, and when the gardeners fumigate it, he gets stupefyingly high.
But even though the Guru learns of the situation, flies off to investigate and has promised to return in a few short days, Murphy’s character fails to lock himself in a room and wait for the guru and the answers (if any) to return. Instead he tries to carry on with his normal routines, heading into work and meetings, and dealing with his wife even though their relationship is in a difficult place. He mimes, mugs, points, signs, draws, and uses talking toys in order to try to make his way through his normal routines.
It doesn’t work.
As a movie, either.
The first two-thirds to three-quarters of this movie was painfully unfunny comedy. The high concept is stupid, the resulting situations are dumb, and watching Murphy over-emote, pantomime and wildly gesticulate is simply not funny. He gets no help from the supporting characters either. The only other person given any comedic material is Clark Duke and he is of no help whatsoever. In fact, he sets the cause back. Watching his character fill in for Murphy at the business meeting (in the trailer) is more painful than it appears in a few second snippet.
The movie – surprisingly – saves itself from being a total fail via its dramatic portion. At a certain point in time, late in the film, the movie slams the brakes on the comedy and downshifts into drama. Murphy resigns himself to his fate. He’s already lost his wife and child and job. With few leaves left on the tree, he surrenders to the fact that he may die, and begins to genuinely reflect on his life. Counting the number of leaves he has left, he judiciously makes use of the final words he may ever speak. This is no montage or quick wrap-up resolution amidst the comedy… this is a significant portion of the film, and it’s a severe shift in pace and tone. It’s actually far far far far better than the comedic portion of the film, and made me long for Murphy to start taking on serious roles as many other aging comedic actors have. He would be excellent.
As it is, though, it’s not enough to save the film. I don’t know if that would be an acceptable path to victory anyways… I mean, who wants to recommend a comedy by saying “The comedy SUCKED but when it got serious, it was decent…”