There is something almost poignant in the way Eddie Murphy so palpably desires to make a meaningful film about enlightenment. The almost comes from the difference between that aspiration and the painfully ill-conceived follow-through in A THOUSAND WORD. This is not Murphy’s first attempt to explore the spiritual side of the human experience. There was the equally ill-conceived HOLY MAN from a decade or so back. The problem is that while Murphy obviously respects that there is more to life than crass materialism, and he is able to show that crassness with pinpoint accuracy, the film in which he wants to skewer it becomes nothing more than an exercise in that very crassness.
As the fast-talking, quick-thinking, yet hopelessly shallow book agent Jack McCall, Murphy takes on corporate venality in a script that is also hopelessly shallow. The obvious, the pedestrian, the contrived all conspire with Murphy’s enormous self-absorption to make a repellant rather than an uplifting story. Well, eventually uplifting in the swelling music, golden sunlight, momentous epiphany sort of way. Before then there is the pain of Murphy confusing amusing himself with prolonged schtick with entertaining an audience with comedy, and then the quick, hairpin turn into gritty drama before settling into an ersatz world of wonder.
The venality arises in Jack’s pursuit of a sure-fire best-seller with merchandising tie-ins that leads him to a guru (Cliff Curtis) who actually does have the key to happiness. When Jack tries his gift for glib in order to snag the guru as a client, a magic bodhi tree in the guru’s garden takes offence. Turning up suddenly in Jack’s backyard, the tree loses one leaf for every word Jack utters, leaving them both as piqued and ailing as the film itself. Unable to dazzle with words, spoken or written, Jack is left with no way to do his job and commences manic behavior with wild abandon.
Murphy mugs, Murphy mimes, and Murphy is so consumed with his own antics that the rest of the cast is left with no room to work. Not that it matters, aside from the abrupt and awkward changes in tone and mood, and the complete lack of character development beyond generic tags such as “wife”, “boss”, or “hapless assistant”, there is no discernable focus, and certainly no consistency in what the tree does and doesn’t consider a word. Even an audience as compassionate as the Buddha himself after his enlightenment beneath his legendary bodhi tree would find nothing beyond that infinite compassion to help it. And even then.
There is irony, perhaps karmic in nature, that after several years of sitting on the studio’s shelf waiting for release, this comedy without a sense of humor about a man forced to shut up to save his life, finally made it to theaters soon after another film about a man not talking, THE ARTIST, won the Oscar™ for Best Picture. In THE ARTIST, there is a film that not only shows exactly why silence can be golden, but also how a film can successfully navigate the spectrum of human emotion while still being true to itself. Too bad A THOUSAND WORDS can’t make the same claim.