“A Thousand Words” was filmed four years ago, when George W. Bush was President and a joke about the massive popularity of Hannah Montana was timely. Four years later, it is being not so much released as exorcised as Dreamworks cleans out its backlog. It isn’t a horrible movie, at least not in comparison to Norbit from the same star and director, but it is a dispiritingly dull and cynical one. Nicolas Cage is listed as a producer, which suggest that at some point he might have planned to play the lead role of a fast-talking literary agent who learns that he is down to his last 1000 words. Once he used them all up, he will die. Cage might have brought something interesting to the role of a man who speeds through life and then has to learn to choose his words very carefully and to begin to listen to others. But Murphy is barely present in the role at all, throwing some wild gestures and facial expressions at us and failing completely at conveying any sort of lessons learned.
Murphy plays Jack, who will say anything to anyone to get what he wants. He lies about his wife being in labor to get to the front of the line at the coffee shop (intrusive product placement alert). He lies about having read the books he is supposed to represent. He is inconsiderate to his wife and their toddler son and nasty to his assistant (Clark Duke), forcing him to pick all of the marshmallows except for the yellow moons out of his breakfast cereal. At his therapists, he talks non-stop but does not say anything.
Dr. Sinja (handsome Cliff Curtis, maintaining some dignity) is the nation’s most prominent spiritual leader and Jack is determined to represent him in the sale of his book. He promises to devote himself fully to Sinja’s project but he does not mean it. And then a mysterious tree appears in Jack’s yard, and it loses a leaf for every word he says.
He uses up a lot of words arguing and complaining and then we get to see him struggle at work (he cannot speak in meetings) and at home (he cannot communicate with his wife). It is supposed to be funny when poor Ruby Dee, as Jack’s mother struggling with dementia, talks crudely about the body parts of another resident of her assisted living facility, and when Kerry Washington, as Jack’s wife, puts on bondage gear and offers to perform “all the naughty things you want” — and he can’t ask, get it? It is even less funny when Jack mistakenly knocks on the hotel door of an overweight gay man expecting a male prostitute. The condescension and superficiality of the closing scenes, complete with choir-of-angels soundtrack with not just a reconciling visit to a cemetery but a healing conversation with Jack-as-a-child, is painful. Murphy’s great strength is his extraordinary verbal facility. His great weakness is a palpable anger that sometimes comes across as contempt for his audience and his material. A movie about an actor with prodigious talents who keeps coming back to material so wrong for what he has to offer — now that might be a movie worth seeing.
Parents should know that this film includes some crude sexual humor, some strong language (s-words), some homophobic humor, a woman in bondage gear, drinking to deal with stress, and references to dementia and a sad death of a parent.
Family discussion: How did not being able to talk make Jack a better listener? What were the most important words that he said and why?
If you like this, try: “Shallow Hal,” “Liar, Liar” and “Bruce Almighty”