A Thousand Words starts off like a typical Eddie Murphy film, utilizing his expected blend of physical slapstick, mile-a-minute chatter, and wild-eyed contortionist facial expressions. The humor is derived almost entirely from awkward communications between Murphy and his acquaintances. But when the plot is well under way and the predicament becomes serious, the film takes a turn toward a sentimental, emotional drama, where the hero must right his wrongs and make amends with his past. It’s as if the script was already in place, Murphy signed on, then rewrites shaped the movie into a vehicle for his unmistakable style (it probably doesn’t help that filmmaker Brian Robbins also directed Meet Dave and Norbit). While the result is certainly not unwatchable, the mood is rather muddied and the laughs are never big.
Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) is a literary agent for the Apogee company, using his signature rapid-fire articulation to negotiate moneymaking deals. His sights are set on the “New Age crap” of Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), whose philosophies and teachings are attracting crowds greater than those of Miley Cyrus concerts. It’s a spiritual movement and McCall wants to be the one to sign the guru to a highly profitable new book deal. Shortly after his encounter with Sinja, Jack discovers that a Bodhi tree has sprouted in his back yard and that it sheds leaves quite rapidly – one for every word he utters. Mysteriously, the trunk has a magical connection to the agent’s body, preventing Jack from chopping it down. The calm, watchful, pie-eating sage hypothesizes that when the woody perennial drops its last leaf, McCall will die.
There’s a glaring error early on that is so blatant it’s hard to ignore it. The major plot gimmick relies on McCall desperately not wanting to talk. When he writes a note to his sleeping wife, each written word also causes a leaf to fall. Infuriated, he flips off the tree, which results in an identical reaction. As soon as it’s defined that a crude gesture affects the tree in the same manner as talking, the whole idea falls apart. Every subsequent effort taken by Jack to communicate is through some sort of expressive movement, whether it be a frantic form of Charades, furious countenance spasms, or tempestuous howling. Yet the tree doesn’t lose foliage to these commotions. If the movie played by its own rules, he would be dead by the end of the day.
Even if the inherent silliness of the story can be brushed aside, the uncertainty with which the fantasy unfolds is disheartening. Strong messages of spirituality, examining the importance of words, miscommunication, forgiveness, being true to oneself, taking a moment to appreciate the beauty of life, and accepting inner peace are temporarily poignant, but interfere with the initial onslaught of jokes. While it’s a fun premise with clement humor (and a few smartly indelicate gags by Clark Duke as McCall’s dimwitted assistant, who proves a favorably contrasting comedic counterpart for Murphy), it can only end one way – with overly formulaic contrivances sorting out the dilemmas of a man trapped in the structure of conventional relationships and success.
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