A Thousand Words has a mouthful of problems, but there’s one issue in particular that it can’t ever shake. The film has half of a heart, which is about the worst percentage possible for a comedy. If it cared about the feelings of its characters less, it might actually be funny. If it cared about them a little more, we might actually get invested in their lives. Unfortunately, its partially formed organ prevents any of that from happening, as it gushes between generic, acceptable one-liners and shoehorned-in moralizations about family values.
Successful comedies can either be absurd or realistic. They can populate their worlds with uproarious characters or humorous human beings. Which it chooses doesn’t really matter, it just needs to pick one. A Thousand Words never bothers to make that decision. Every time it seems poised to present its main character as a contemptible monster, it pulls back and lets him visit his mom or play with his son. Every time it presents its second lead as a sympathetic underdog, it forces him to do something outlandish, like admit to having role play animal sex in his boss’ office. The result is some strange hybrid of people you’d never actually meet nor want to watch.
It would be easy to point the finger here and say this film should never have been made, but there are a lot of great comedies with unbelievable, borderline stupid premises. A Thousand Words follows a fast-talking agent named Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) who winds up with a new tree in his backyard after a manipulative encounter with a self-help guru (Cliff Curtis). The former soon realizes the perennial is a kind of strange adumbration of his inner self that sheds leaves every time he speaks. To prolong his life, he employs the help of his assistant (Clark Duke) and tries to carry on by communicating through hand gestures. The basic idea has a goofy, Groundhog Day feel to it, which would be fine if the execution was even a fraction as good.
It’s not. You know how the first time you watched Groundhog Day, you thought, I would totally do _____ and then Bill Murray did _______? That game doesn’t really work with A Thousand Words because McCall doesn’t behave sensibly. He wastes words on unimportant nonsense and then shuts his mouth during the moments everyone else in the world would speak. It’s really frustrating to watch and shreds our ability to sympathize. By the time he risks his life running into the street to save a blind guy instead of using one of the six hundred or so words he has left, it’s not even worth getting upset over.
A Thousand Words is rife with contrived moments like that, which would be fine if it didn't then overcompensate to suddenly try and make it all seem human. In the midst of his fiasco, our protagonist watches his marriage crumble, his job go up in smoke and his mother continue to descend into dementia. It’s ping pong at its finest and filmmaking at its most confounding.
Still, I’m not going to give A Thousand Words the lowest rating possible because its stars try their damndest to ease the carnage. As usual, Murphy offers a few worthwhile moments, and Duke is particularly solid in a disastrous lunch where he impersonates his boss. Kerry Washington too is good in the thankless role of McCall’s wife, and I fully buy Curtis as a New Age prophet. If this film were completely rewritten using the same premise and same actors, I’d probably see it-- but this version will definitely not get a second look.