NPR logo Roger Ebert Subtly Informs 'A Thousand Words' That It's Full Of Patoot

Culture And Criticism

Roger Ebert Subtly Informs 'A Thousand Words' That It's Full Of Patoot

Pipe down: Eddie Murphy plays Jack McCall — a man who's sentenced to silence — in A Thousand Words. Bruce McBroom/DreamWorks hide caption

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Bruce McBroom/DreamWorks

Pipe down: Eddie Murphy plays Jack McCall — a man who's sentenced to silence — in A Thousand Words.

Bruce McBroom/DreamWorks

Roger Ebert is unimpressed.

Specifically, he's unimpressed by Eddie Murphy's new comedy A Thousand Words, which is getting just the worst reviews all over.

But it's not just that Ebert finds it a manipulative, largely incoherent mess that robs its star of his most valuable asset. If you read his review properly, you'll spot the fact that he thinks that the entire concept behind the movie is hogwash.

Ebert doesn't call a lot of attention to the moment when he tips his hand. He spends most of the review doing his usual bang-up job taking apart a bad movie about a fast-talker who suddenly finds himself magically limited to the titular word count before he dies.

But then comes the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph, where Ebert makes his point without forcing it:

The running gag is that Jack has to communicate without speaking, or talk himself to death. At one point this struggle is conducted by using several dozen talking dolls and action figures which are conveniently scattered around the literary agency. Jack also does desperate pantomimes and gets so frustrated he seems ready to explode. I think what I'd try is writing notes. (emphasis added)

Ebert, of course, isn't speaking hypothetically. As someone who rather famously lost his own ability to talk several years ago, he's simply describing his own preferred mode of communication. It's not surprising that he wouldn't have a lot of patience with a movie that treats his own daily situation, which he's decided to greet with a that's-life shrug, as outlandish and comedically impossible to cope with.

It's a phenomenon I've experienced myself, albeit under far less serious circumstances. Let's step back, shall we, to the heady spring of 2008 when I first saw the preview of rom-com Made Of Honor.

You remember that one: Patrick Dempsey is asked by his female best friend to captain her bridal party. It may have included the line "You're the maid of honor? But... you're a MAN!" It may not have. I would be shocked to learn that it was not uttered at one point during the studio pitch.

And, of course, there was the usual bit about Dempsey realizing that he's been in love with the bride-to-be the whole time, yada yada yada. (I'm assuming. I actually haven't seen it.) That's the "romantic" aspect of "romantic comedy."

But where it lost me was in the high concept that drove the "comedy" side. Made Of Honor presented the prospect of a man serving in the maid of honor role as an only-in-Hollywood idea that was utterly, unfathomably preposterous on the face of it.

And yet, that was exactly my role at my sister's wedding three years earlier. The bridesmaids did not refer to me as the maid of honor, of course. That would have been ridiculous. I am a man. So they dubbed me the male of honor. I also have a male friend who has been a tuxedoed, stubble-covered flower girl. These are things that happen when you surround yourself with the wrong/right people over the course of your life.

There is without question plenty of comedic and dramatic material to be mined from the ideas of an enthusiastic talker suddenly forced to find other ways to communicate and a man asked to step into a role so traditionally female-identified that the very title is just about inalterably gendered.

What I suspect Ebert takes issue with in A Thousand Words is the way that Murphy's inability to speak is used as a cheap, laughable-on-its-face gimmick. Ebert knows better. In his quiet way, he's telling Murphy's character to get over it. And he's telling him using the written word.