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June 15, 2012
Shark Bite Theatre
A Thousand Words: This Picture's Not Worth It
by Andrew E. Lindsay

Five minutes into A Thousand Words, I knew I had seen this movie before, several times, and I didn't remember particularly liking any of the variations on this tired bit.

Some of the movies that came to mind were Liar, Liar, Yes Man, and The Invention of Lying. Interesting, you might be thinking, that all of those movies deal with lying. Yes, I would say, you're right, they're all about lying, but even more importantly, they are also lies.

The distinction, if you're wondering, is that it is possible to tell a story about lying without telling a lie to do it. In other words, a story about a liar can be filled with truths, can result in redemption, and can (and probably should) help us see the folly in deceiving others and even ourselves.

Sir Walter Scott's Marmion said,"Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!" Shakespeare touched on the subject constantly, helping his audience draw moral conclusions from the words and deeds of characters good and bad.

Hamlet's Polonius, a man of questionable moral fiber, offered, "This above all: to thine own self be true." And Macbeth's tale of murder and deception is punctuated with Macbeth's observation that, "We but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor."

This is a rather eloquent way of saying what comes around goes around, but nonetheless illustrates the idea that living a lie is a bad idea. You can't win, and you don't arrive at some moment of moral enlightenment by following a path that is itself a lie. This is true for real people and its also true for stories.

Let me say that Eddie Murphy is a funny fellow. His exaggerated expressions and infectious laughter can get to even the most stoic movie-goer. He's also a pretty decent dramatic actor in the right movie with the right director.

In A Thousand Words,.Murphy plays Jack McCall, a very successful literary agent who is married to a sweet woman named Caroline, with whom he has a very young son, Tyler. The problem with Jack's life is shoved down our throat in the opening minutes of the film, forcing us to cough up a mental picture of a guy we don't really like a whole lot.

He's apparently got everything going for him: a great family, a successful career, respect in his industry, fancy car, yadda yadda yadda. He's also a colossal jerk. He doesn't connect with his wife, he treats his assistant like crap, and he never reads anything but the first five pages and the last five pages of his manuscripts. Oh, and everybody swears a lot.

One day he catches wind of Dr. Sinja, a new-age generic spiritual guru who apparently has ten million followers and who has also apparently just written a self-help book. Determined to strike a literary coup, Jack announces to his team that he is going to sign the guru to a lucrative deal to publish his book.

Wow! Do you think you can do it, Jack? No one can get to this guy! Hey! I'm Jack McCall! And off he goes to the guru's spiritual retreat to fake his way into a face-to-face.

At this point you have your obligatory group of twenty or thirty people, dressed in white, sitting on mats in an open-air pavilion, chanting and meditating while Dr. Sinja walks barefoot among them, offering them bits of meaningless counsel about seeking a blue something or other. Jack sneaks in and finds an empty mat in the middle of the group, plops himself down in his all-black suit and tie and shirt combo, and begins to do over-the-top fake chanting in a pathetic attempt to blend in.

Crocodile tears follow a Constantine-like conversion or epiphany or something, and Dr. Sinja escorts Jack to his private quarters for some personal attention. In their short conversation, Jack quickly turns the topic to the good doctor's book, announcing his desire to publish the book and bring Dr. Sinja's message of enlightenment to the world. Dr. Sinja asks if Jack has read the book, and Jack insists that he has and that it was the book that brought him here.

Dr. Sinja reluctantly agrees to be published, but before he leaves, Jack cuts his hand on the bark of a Bodhi tree.

Jack returns to his office to the praises of his boss and colleagues and begins to work a deal with a publisher to the tune of a truckload of money for a manuscript he's never laid eyes on. And later the very same Bodhi tree he cut his hand on miraculously explodes out of the ground outside on his patio, full-grown, alive, and full of leaves. But not for long.

Jack pretty soon figures out, with Dr. Sinja's help, that he and the tree are connected, and every time Jack utters a word, a leaf falls off the tree. Their only possible conclusion is that when the last leaf falls, Jack will die.

Dr. Sinja flies off for three days to South America to a guru conference of some sort, promising to find a solution for Jack while he's away. In the meantime, Jack must suddenly learn to economize on his blathering since every word is one leaf closer to his own demise. This, of course, leads to much hilarity.

Jack's wife tries to reconnect with him by luring him to a hotel to play grown-up games, the condition of which is that he talk to her. He instead tries unsuccessfully to pantomime his predicament, which leads to her kicking him out of the fancy hotel in his underwear.

Jack somehow manages to get his assistant, Aaron Wiseberger, to figure out the nature of his problem, so at least somebody is trying to help him, since Dr. Sinja isn't figuring anything out. (Aaron is played by Clark Duke, a rather pleasantly goofy kid who sort of reminded me of the actor Jonah Hill.)

Things go from bad to worse (surprise, surprise) when the first two book deals go south, and Jack is summonsed to a lunch meeting with his boss and another publisher, and they're all set to sign the big pile of money contract when an assistant from the office arrives with the "manuscript," something no one but Jack and Aaron had seen up to this point. Turns out it's a pamphlet, five pages long.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that during this meeting, the gardner at Jack's house put some kind of fertilizer or insecticide or something on the tree, which then made Jack stoned. You know, because they're connected. And guess what happens when he waters the tree? Yup, it looks like Jack is sweating really badly or had an accident or whatever.

So leaves keep falling, Jack gets fired, his wife leaves him, and Dr. Sinja still has no answers. Now, in the middle of all this disastrously funny stuff, there is another movie taking place at the same time in the same theater with some of the same characters. In this movie, Jack goes to visit his mother who is deteriorating from Alzheimer's. She thinks every day is her birthday, and she thinks Jack is actually her late husband, who it turns out was kind of an absentee dad and was never really there for Jack or his wife because he was always working.

Jack's final visit to his mom is actually quite moving, and somewhere between there and the cemetery where he goes to visit his dad, Jack comes to some place of clarity about his relationship with his father and how he has become his dad in many ways.

I guess this is the spoiler alert, but since I don't anticipate you going to watch this movie anyway, I guess it doesn't matter. In the end, the leaves are gone, Jack thinks he's dying but doesn't, the leaves come back, and Jack makes amends with everybody. Jack has found inner peace, Aaron is now an agent in Jack's old office, and Dr. Sinja is apparently even wiser, although still exhibiting nothing close to charisma.

So we have another installment in a long line of shallow stories where a man finds redemption by following a nameless, pointless path prescribed by no one. Living a Christ-like life is almost never an option in stories from Hollywood, because that would somehow be offensive or divisive or bigoted or old-fashioned or stupid.

Forget the Sermon on the Mount or the Golden Rule; how much more progressive to put forward a private-label guru whose personal philosophy is a pamphlet. This story about a liar is written and directed by liars. Maybe they aren't bad people, but they're liars nonetheless.

Despite the fact that the ultimate intended message was meant to be a profound revelation (you know, spend more time with your family and less time at the office), A Thousand Words actually said nothing.

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