‘A Thousand Words’ Review: The Gag's on Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy mugs his way through yet another high-concept comedy that skids into smarmy, feel-good territory

There’s nothing wrong with making a wacky comedy that ultimately wants to deliver the message that family is what’s important.

Unless, of course, it involves an actor — even one as talented as the great Ruby Dee — actually saying out loud, “Family is what’s important,” which is a cue to leave the theater and spend one’s valuable time teaching a nephew to fly a kite rather than wasting two hours on another sanctimonious Hollywood feel-good movie.

And sanctimony is what “A Thousand Words” is all about, particularly once it makes a hard 180-degree turn into sappy sentimentality after an hour of would-be comedy mostly revolving around a mugging, grimacing Eddie Murphy.

Murphy stars as Jack McCall, a high-powered literary agent whose success lies not in finding the best books (he refuses to actually read manuscripts) but in fast-taking his way in and out of any situation at hand, even when he’s at home with his wife (Kerry Washington), who wants Jack to move his family out of his mid-century, glass-walled bachelor pad and into a more baby-friendly house for their infant son.

While laying his rap on world-famous New Age guru Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), Jack cuts himself on a bodhi tree; that tree later turns up in Jack’s back yard, and sheds a leaf for every word that Jack utters. The tree is connected to Jack, says Sinja, and Jack will have to learn to shut up, lest he talk the tree (and thus himself) to death.

That premise is supposed to be the set-up for “Liar, Liar”–esque comedy situations in which a motormouth has to mime his way out of trouble, but stripping Murphy of his verbal skills winds up being a big mistake, since it reduces him to a series of broadly overdone facial expressions that, more often than not, call to mind Murphy’s lampooning of Bill Cosby on “Saturday Night Live” back in the 1980s.

Screenwriter Steve Koren is a graduate of the Adam Sandler sludge factory, including “Click,” another movie in which bromides about the importance of family are dropped like anvils. “A Thousand Words” wants to have it both ways, first mocking Sinja’s feel-good mysticism and then taking it utterly seriously, and then preaching enlightenment while also portraying most of the women as nags and harpies and throwing in gratuitous gay jokes. (This despite the brief appearance of Brian Gallivan, better known as the star of Second City’s “Sassy Gay Friend” viral videos.)

“A Thousand Words” marks yet another lazy, “family-friendly” comedy in which Murphy phones it in — remember when this guy was dangerously funny? — and wastes the talents of a supporting cast that also includes Allison Janney and Jack McBrayer.

Bad enough that Dee (as Jack’s mom) gets saddled with the platitudes, but it’s particularly galling that the luminous Washington is given two main tasks: whining her way though the thankless demanding-wife role and sporting a dominatrix bikini for a dopey near-sex scene. Embarrassing still frames from the latter will no doubt follow her online for the rest of her career.

Onscreen, Murphy spends his time learning to become a better person by coping with his daddy issues, but offscreen, he needs to figure out how to turn down scripts like this one and instead to tackle more “Dreamgirls”-sized challenges as an actor.