First, a brief history of the ups and downs of actor and comedian Eddie Murphy. After becoming a star on “Saturday Night Live” in the early Eighties, Murphy went on to become an even bigger star on the big screen with titles like “48 Hours” and “Trading Places,” hitting it really huge in the “Beverly Hills Cop” series. Things were swinging along as though they’d never end until the late Nineties, when his movies started heading in the other direction: “Doctor Doolittle,” “Holy Man,” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Daddy Day Care,” “Meet Dave,” “Norbit.” While it was looking pretty grim for Murphy’s live-action films, it was also about this time that he struck gold as the cartoon voice of Donkey in the highly successful “Shrek” movies, so he was still in the limelight. Then, just when it looked as though Murphy’s live-action film career was over and Hollywood might forevermore consign him to cartoon roles, along came 2011’s “Tower Heist,” which he practically stole from an accomplished ensemble cast. So, with 2012’s comedy “A Thousand Words,” he was back on top, right? Nope. In fact, quite the opposite.
After I had completed writing my review of “A Thousand Words,” I went to post a link to it at Rotten Tomatoes. Although I hadn’t thought too highly of the film, nothing could have prepared me for the reaction of other critics. The movie had a zero on the Tomatometer. A zero. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film at RT where not a single reviewer liked it. Did it deserve such a fate? No, I don’t think so. It’s not a very good comedy, but it’s not a zero, either. I went back and added this paragraph by way of prefacing my review. So, let’s take a look at what’s going on here.
First, understand that the film’s ambition is to be a humorous fantasy fable. But in order for any fantasy or fable to work, it has to have a grounding in some well-delineated reality with some internal consistency. “A Thousand Words” has neither. A good fantasy should make us want to suspend our disbelief and go along with it, no matter how far-fetched. “A Thousand Words” doesn’t do that, instead losing us from the beginning. More important, a humorous picture should be that–humorous, and, again, the film fails to deliver, too often relying on Eddie Murphy to make material funny that just isn’t inherently funny to begin with. It’s a tough assignment for any actor.
Murphy plays Jack McCall, a successful, conniving, fast-talking, self-absorbed, and wholly unlikable literary agent. He’s the kind of guy who would do anything and say anything to close a deal and make a buck. And he’s made plenty, too, enough to afford a fancy car and an expensive home and pool in the LA. hills. Right away, we can see what’s coming: Jack will undergo a transformation through the film and end up a better human being. This seems to be one of Murphy’s trademarks, so why stop now? But if the film is that obvious, that predictable, why bother?
OK, here’s the fantasy angle: Shortly after visiting a popular nondenominational religious guru, Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), trying to wrap up a deal to publish the guy’s book of New Age wisdom, a magic tree pops up in Jack’s backyard. Every time Jack says a word, a leaf falls from the tree. He consults Dr. Sinja on the meaning of all this, and Sinja tells him that he and the tree have become one and that when the last leaf falls from the tree, Jack will die. Therefore, Jack must never again say a word.
Now, think about that premise for a moment. You’ve got one of the funniest verbal actors in the business in Eddie Murphy, and you put him in a movie where he can’t talk. It’s already a recipe for disaster. Or at least a boring time.
The film’s next problem I’ve already mentioned: It’s not very funny. Murphy’s mugging, which he substitutes for speech, goes over the top early on. Moreover, Jack’s mother has Alzheimer’s disease, which is never funny. And Jack’s wife (Kerry Washington) is almost as unpleasant as Jack, refusing to listen to him before or after his predicament, dismissing out of hand his attempts to explain his situation to her, all the time Jack losing precious words in the process. The only character in the movie who has a fighting chance of being interesting is Aaron Wiseberger (Clark Duke), Jack’s naive young intern assistant. Yet even his act wears thin before long, leaving us with no one in the story with whom to sympathize.
Of course, we can see in an instant that Jack will learn from his experience, that he will discover from his inability to talk a new ability to listen. So the movie becomes a moralistic tale about life and love and family. The issue is, so what? It’s all so simplistic, so lacking in serious insight, it has little or no effect on us.
Murphy continues to look good and no doubt continues to possess a ton of talent, but he needs a good script and “A Thousand Words” doesn’t provide it. Director Brian Robbins (“Varsity Blues,” “Norbit,” “Meet Dave”) and screenwriter Steve Koren give him only mushy sentimentality to deliver, and it’s not enough.
Although I could find nothing in particular to fault in the video, it’s hardly extraordinary, either. Using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to do the work, the Blu-ray disc offers up colors and definition that are a little subdued and soft but probably close to what the movie looked like in a theater. Still, there’s a dull gloss over the image, often yellowish gold, perhaps to emphasize the fantasy nature of the story. If that’s the case, the picture quality is fine.
There’s not much one can say about the sound. DreamWorks use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to reproduce it, and I’m sure that like the PQ it replicates the film’s original soundtrack pretty well. It’s just that there isn’t much to reproduce beyond dialogue in the center speaker and a little musical bloom in the surrounds. Let’s just say the sound is quiet and natural and, otherwise, unexceptional.
The Blu-ray disc’s primary extras are eleven deleted scenes in high-definition widescreen, totaling about thirteen minutes. In addition, you’ll find an alternate ending, also in HD widescreen at about two minutes; and a code to download or stream the movie via UltraViolet to computers, tablets, or smartphones, the offer expiring June 26, 2013.
Finally, there are fourteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes packaged in a solid Blu-ray case, not a flimsy, cutout Eco-case.
“A Thousand Words” is not among Eddie Murphy’s finest achievements, yet it is far from the worst movie of all time as its zero rating at Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Indeed, it is a sweet, earnest, well-meaning film, just not a very funny or convincing one.