No one is about to accuse Brian Robbins of subtlety. The man behind the Eddie Murphy trifecta of Norbit, Meet Dave and this weekend’s A Thousand Words opens this latest high-concept blend of magic and mawkishness (to be released, anyway – this was shot back in 2008) with a shot of Murphy’s family in a broken picture frame. Before his Jack McCall even utters his first words of solemn narration, you could guess that he’s a workaholic dad overdue for a lesson in What Really Matters, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Of course, formulas like these can be forgiven if granted a touch of cleverness or flair in execution, but again, that has never exactly Robbins’ directorial forte. He’s mostly here to make sure that we’re treated to garish close-ups of Starbucks Coffee cups as Jack proclaims how delicious it is, to make sure that co-star Allison Janney is in frame when Murphy proceeds to insert a breadstick into her nostril during an Important Business Meeting, to make sure that we see the distinct outline of an elderly man’s crotch after we’re inexplicably informed that this gent wears his pants much too tight.
What does all of this have to do with life lessons? Who knows. Here’s what you need to know: fast-talking literary agent McCall tries to rope in New Age guru Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis) into a lucrative book deal, for which Jack ends up burdened with a mystical tree in his backyard. For his every spoken or written word, the tree loses a leaf. (Even middle fingers take their toll.) For every action taken out on its trunk, Jack experiences an identical reaction. Ergo, if the tree becomes bare, it dies and so does our harried businessman/neglectful family man.
It’s a glorified excuse for celebrity charades and other antics; tree-crawling squirrels cause Jack to be ticklish at the most inopportune times, while pesticide-spraying gardeners result in his being quasi-stoned at said Important Business Meeting (of which there are many). During a conference call, he has talking action figures speak on his behalf… and other grown adults fall for it. This is the comedy, folks. Devoted assistant Clark Duke spastically confessing to a furry fetish is what passes for funny here; the same goes for “come hither” looks from a shirtless fat man in an elevator.
To be fair, it’s not as if Murphy doesn’t throw himself into the gags wholesale, whether he’s mugging wildly, mouthing orders to spouses and bosses who don’t understand or spewing leaves from his mouth in a nightmare. Even when the last act turns into the requisite redemption arc and Robbins lays the schmaltz on thick – down to a grim and thus laughable bottoming-out sequence that sees Jack attempting suicide by means of singing – Murphy taps into something wounded in a movie that otherwise specifically robs him of his chief comedic gift: his mouth. And one can only imagine that the chief reason that supporting players like Duke, Janney, Curtis, Kerry Washington and Jack McBrayer signed on was simply to say that they had the chance to work with a comedic god, dire circumstances be damned.
Coming from scribe Steve Koren (Bruce Almighty, Click), Words follows directly in the footsteps of those films, not to mention Liar Liar, Groundhog Day and any other post-Freaky Friday high-concept redemption story that inevitably crossed Tim Allen and Adam Sandler’s desks at some point. It wouldn’t have been any funnier in 2008, or even 1998. It wouldn’t have been much funnier with anyone besides Murphy in the lead role. It’s a ready-made blueprint for mediocrity that brings new meaning to “That goes without saying” and is perhaps better left without having actually been seen.