Eddie Murphy Stays Mostly Silent in ‘A Thousand Words’

By Maggie Scott

Lon Chaney may have been the Man with a Thousand Faces, but Eddie Murphy, as Jack McCall in the raucously poignant fable, A Thousand Words, is the Man of a Million Grimaces.  Other than Jim Carrey, no one but Murphy can twist his map into so many fantastic and hilarious forms.

Eddie Murphy and Kerry Washington star as a married couple in the new movie, "A Thousand Words"

Murphy’s mug gets this workout because his trademark gift of gab, in all its luxuriant range of tones, is silenced when McCall—ace employee of Apogee Literary Agents—discovers one day that if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut, he’ll die.  Before getting into this dire predicament, McCall believes, “I can talk anybody into doing anything.” That vocal dexterity typically goes into warp drive with McCall’s daily dose of Starbucks.

But his words turn wizardry with the challenge of convincing Sinja (Cliff Curtis), a new age guru who preaches that “in quiet there is truth,” that with McCall representing Sinja, Apogee will “present Sinja’s book to the world.”  Even though McCall is dismissive of Sinja and hasn’t even read his book, he can smell Best Seller; and he jacks up the vocal razzmatazz at Sinja’s ashram, where he pricks his hand on a Bodhi tree.  Sinja is placidly unimpressed—even more so when McCall learns that Sinja’s book is only five pages long.  “It’s a pamphlet!” roars McCall.  “It’s a journey,” coos Sinja.

McCall has just begun his journey—away from the “fake” Jack McCall, whose vain, ambitious voice has drowned out the sound of his inner voice struggling to be heard.  When the Bodhi tree springs up out of the backyard of McCall’s sleek, mid-century modern house—the one his wife Caroline (Kerry Washington) would love to trade for a more “family friendly” traditional model—Jack isn’t ready to believe that every word he says will bring him closer to death.

Sinja points out that a bare tree is a dead tree, and that the more McCall talks, the faster the leaves fall.  Writing the words has the same effect. Enraged at first, McCall soon becomes desperate as the seriousness of the situation sinks in.  While nowhere near as elegant as Marcel Marceau, McCall is forced to communicate through furiously contorted miming, with disastrous results during meetings with publishers making deals for Sinja’s book, and during a hotel meeting with his wife, who thinks a domination date with McCall will loosen his lips when she demands he “talk dirty” to her.

Finally, McCall is able to convince his assistant, Aaron (Clark Duke), of the fatal fix he’s in.  But, until he heeds Sinja’s advice to “find the truth” about himself and trades words for actions, McCall is already a dead man—in danger of losing everything.  No one can hold a candle to Murphy in material like this, written by Steve Koren: slapstick hilarity that inspires belly laughs.

A bit of It’s a Wonderful Life and a bit of Scrooge, the story has a stitched-together feeling and a small amount of unnecessary vulgarity, countered by some real depth of feeling in a wonderful sequence between Murphy and the great Ruby Dee as McCall’s mother.  While the result is outrageous fun, the point is serious: We only have a finite number of words we will say before we die—we need to make every one of them count.  A DreamWorks release, rated PG-13.


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