Back in college, I was lucky enough to nab a one-on-one, in person interview with Clark Duke, who was in DC promoting his upcoming film, Hot Tub Time Machine. As a nervous, first-time-interviewing college student, I asked your typical interview questions because I was unable to handle myself in such situations. Near the end of the interview, I asked him what he had coming next because, aside from the little seen Sex Drive, he hadn’t done much and wasn’t well known (Kick-Ass had not yet been released). He said to me that later that year, a movie he had done with Eddie Murphy called A Thousand Words would be released. This was in January of 2010. Now here we are, over two years later, and it’s just now seeing the light of day. Originally filmed in 2008 and delayed multiple times, it’s been sitting on the shelf for four years. Directed by Brian Robbins, the same man behind recent Eddie Murphy travesties Norbit and Meet Dave (and taken with the fact that it wasn’t screened for critics), chances were A Thousand Words would be unwatchable dreck, but it’s not. I know I’m in the minority on this one and it’s certainly not a great movie, but there’s more to it than Robbins’ other directorial efforts, which is a happy surprise.
Murphy plays Jack McCall, a literary agent who claims he can sign anybody to do anything. When he discovers the popularity of a New Age spiritual guru, Dr. Sinja, played by Cliff Curtis, who has just written a new self help book, he sets off to make him his next big paycheck. When he arrives, he stumbles upon a tree that cuts him when he touches it. Upon arriving home, he mysteriously finds that same tree in his back yard. At first, he doesn’t think much of it, but soon he realizes that with every word he speaks, a leaf falls off. He and the tree are connected, so whatever happens to it, happens to him. Once it loses its leaves, it will die and so will Jack.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, A Thousand Words is not very funny. While it’s not as immature as Norbit or as family friendly as Meet Dave, it never seems to take off. It has a chuckle or two here and there (one scene in particular where Jack’s assistant, played by Clark Duke, acts like Jack in a high pressure situation, which includes excessive language and over-the-top mannerisms—in typical Eddie Murphy style—is quite funny), but the comedy fails far more often than it succeeds. For about half of the film’s 90 minute runtime, it’s practically unwatchable, but then something strange happens. It transitions from a zany comedy to a well meaning and moderately effective drama.
Jack is someone who takes language for granted. His job requires him to say whatever is necessary to close a deal, even if it means lying through his teeth, but when he discovers his connection with the tree, his words are taken away. His relationship with his wife, played by the beautiful Kerry Washington, is simultaneously falling apart and she’s threatening to take their infant son and leave. He has used his words throughout his entire career to accomplish many things, but none ever really meant anything to him. When he actually needs his words to save the one thing in the world that’s important to him, he finds he doesn’t have enough left. Although this certainly isn’t the most profound movie in the world, I appreciated the thematic juxtaposition of a man who spoke and spoke without saying much of anything at all discovering how powerful his words can be.
There’s an additional side story involving Jack’s mentally weakening mother that doesn’t really work and has no true bearing on the story at hand (despite a solid performance from screen veteran Ruby Dee) and a couple of out of place visions are far too on the nose to be effective, but A Thousand Words surprised me with its sincerity. This isn’t just crudeness for the sake of crudeness like Norbit. This is a moderately intelligent movie that actually aims to make a point. It may not fully live up to its potential, but it also far exceeds its expectations. I may be chastised for this one, but consider this my recommendation.
A Thousand Words receives 3/5