A THOUSAND WORDS
It may be that the arc of a comics career involves reaching a certain peak popularity and that that subsequently becomes a slide into soft-headed middle-age as they become parents and then begin to direct their on-screen roles towards entertaining their children. Robin Williams is a perfect example of someone who was an edgy funny guy in his heyday in the 1980s and had become a cuddly child-friendly figure by the end of the 1990s. As A Thousand Words comes out, Eddie Murphy is about to turn 51 and has five children ranging from the single digit age group to their teens. His choices in roles over the last few years has felt like he has been catering more and more towards this family audience the likes of Dr Dolittle (1998) and sequel, Mulan (1998), the Shrek films, Daddy Day Care (2003), Imagine That. Or it may simply be that this family-friendly fare is where the big paycheques are to be found for comedy actors.
A Thousand Words has the feel of an embarrassment that the studio would have been happier off shuffling into quick dvd and cable release. The film was completed back in 2008 and sat in limbo for four years. When Eddie Murphy signed up as the host of the 2012 Oscar telecast, distribution was quickly organised to piggyback on the temporary boost to Murphys profile that it is assumed would ensue. Alas for the distributors plans, Murphy quit the Oscar broadcast in protest over producer Brett Ratner being forced to step down after making a homophobic slur. A Thousand Words opened without any critic previews and was universally panned.
A Thousand Words reminds very much of the Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar (1997). In both films, the star of the show plays a high-rising character who walks all over people in a way that clearly signals that they are on a collision course with a rude reality check. The two characters then have a curse placed on them Jim Carrey being forced to tell the truth for 24 hours, Eddie Murphy only being given a thousand words before he dies. Both films then become redemption fantasies where the protagonist must re-examine all aspects of his life, learn to make amends, appreciate the people in front of him and so forth. Both are soft and cuddly films at heart that humiliate their protagonists in only mildly comedic ways before making them wake up to a feelgood reconciliation. [PLOT SPOILERS] Here, for instance, after building the premise up around Eddie Murphy dying when his thousand words are up, the ending instead cops out on this and has him wake up after his last word expires now miraculously renewed, having discovered humility and an appreciation for the people he dismissed.
Unfortunately, the idea of Eddie Murphy being forced not to speak makes for a lame premise. In both Liar Liar and A Thousand Words, the bulk of the comedy centres around a series of scenarios where the hero is forced into situations where he must struggle against what he is not able to do. In this case, we get scenes with Murphy trying to make his way through important business meetings by saying nothing or using talking dolls, trying to deal with his wife wanting to speak dirty to her during sex, trying to escort a blind man across the street, dealing with a group of French people and being forced to repeat himself to be understood and so on. Realising the limited nature of these scenarios, the film also creates the additional gimmick of Eddie Murphy being sympathetically affected by whatever is happening to the tree thus when squirrels run up and down the tree, he feels like he is being tickled; when the gardener waters it, Eddie starts spontaneously dripping water; and when the tree is being fumigated, he becomes stoned during the middle of an important business lunch. Even with these additional gimmicks, the premise still feels strained.
The laughs are few and far between. The film does have Eddie Murphy going for it and he has been able to lift up a weak film in many of the aforementioned examples. He is in his element during the early scenes as the asshole agent however, the films very premise proceeds to shoot itself in the foot by robbing Murphy of his voice and leaving him having to conduct facial gymnastics for the rest of the running time. In fact, uber-nerd Clark Duke ends up stealing many of the scenes he is in out from under Murphy. Worse though, A Thousand Words gets maudlin. It is a film where its emphasis lies more in its marshmallowy redemption arc than it does in letting Eddie Murphy open up and have fun on screen. Compare A Thousand Words to the razor sharp and on form Eddie Murphy we saw in works like Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) and say that he has not descended into mush.
In A Thousand Words, Eddie Murphy is again being put through his paces again by Brian Robbins who previously directed him in Norbit (2007) and Meet Dave (2008). Brian Robbins is a former actor who became a director specialising in comedy with films such as Ready to Rumble (2000), The Perfect Score (2004) and The Shaggy Dog (2006).