A Thousand Words (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy), a fast-talking literary agent, is assigned by his boss (Allison Janney) to snag a book deal with Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), a very popular spiritual leader, whose most recent work is likely to prove profitable for the company. Pretending to have read Dr. Sinja’s book, the two eventually make a deal and shake hands. That night, a Bodhi tree magically sprouts from Jack’s posh backyard; the deal somehow establishing a connection between Jack and the tree. Each word that Jack utters resulted in the tree losing a leaf. If the last leaf were to fall off the branch, Jack would die.
Written by Steve Koren and directed by Brian Robbins, in theory, “A Thousand Words” is a perfect vehicle for Murphy because he has established himself as an actor who could say about a hundred words per minute, on average, and yet still deliver his lines with wit and clarity. While his performance is consistent, the script is neither as funny nor sharp as it could have been because the logic concerning the protagonist’s decisions in terms of whether to speak during Moment A or not speak during Moment B lacks practicality.
I had no problem accepting the magical elements with respect to the tree, but I struggled in accepting that Jack, a very successful man in the publishing world, lacks the intelligence to choose his battles wisely until the very end. Saving good decisions toward the back half of the story comes across forced. The character arc in connection the lessons Jack learns would have been much more believable if he made good decisions almost every step of the way while still having the tendency to slip back to his undesirable social habits. When it comes to human behavior, we expect change does not occur over night.
The picture does have very funny moments. One of my favorite scenes involves a book deal that has to be done via telephone. It is paramount that Jack is successful because his boss, Samantha, has not been very happy with him lately. In order to not waste words, Jack results to using various toys that can be pressed and a built-in voice is then activated. The idea is creative. Conjoined with quick editing, it creates a manic but fragile energy where a tiny error, like pressing on the wrong toy or the correct toy saying an unexpected alternate programmed message, might ruin the deal entirely.
There are instances of real sensitivity as well. I was touched by the scenes with Jack and his mother (Ruby Dee), the latter afflicted with dementia. I have had the chance to work in a facility with people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and, like Jack, patients have mistaken me for a family member and their sad stories are revealed.
When the film does not try so hard to be sad or funny, the lessons born from Jack’s struggle feels true. There is value in silence as well as choosing the right words while communicating. For instance, many people think that “being real” is saying whatever is on their minds. That isn’t necessarily the case. There is a difference between, say, honesty and rudeness or confidence and arrogance. We all have met people who just cannot stop talking. If only a Bodhi tree would magically appear in their yards.