Eliminating Eddie Murphy's dramatic, Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls from the discussion for a minute, it's more or less agreed upon by everyone that his effectiveness in a film hinges on his ability to run his mouth like a race car, his motorized, rapid-fire delivery turning words into rubber superballs bouncing off the walls. That's the guy whose talent for verbal insanity we loved in the '80s and it's the guy we lost for a long time until Brett Ratner gave him a chance to do it again in the recent not-quite-hit Tower Heist. And it was probably the best thing about that movie. So whose big idea was it to put Murphy in a movie where the point is shutting him up?
This time around he plays a flashy, high-powered literary agent who talks a mile a minute just to hear himself speak, keeps his wife (Kerry Washington) and newborn son at an emotional arm's length, pays a fair-enough amount of attention to his nursing home-bound mother (Ruby Dee) and gets what he wants professionally by any means necessary. But when his greedy gaze turns to selling the latest book from New Age guru (Cliff Curtis), a magical Bodhi tree erupts in Murphy's backyard and begins shedding one leaf for each empty word that leaves his mouth. When the leaves are gone, it's reasoned, he will die. Of course, this is just a guess on the part of every single person who encounters the tree, but it makes as much fantasy-sense as anything else in this movie, so why not?
Mildly wacky comedic events take place from that point -- all of them involving Murphy playing an endless game of charades with a series of non-comprehending and/or horny passersby, most notably his own wife wearing a shiny black dominatrix bikini, demanding some leaf-murdering PG-13 dirty talk from her inexplicably mute husband -- until the movie switches gears about two-thirds in and gives way to hardcore heartstring-tuggery. Flashbacks to his childhood, desperate attempts at redemption and mystical "what's it all mean, this thing called existence?" sequences turn everything upside down and into Eddie Murphy's Tree of Life, with Murphy in multiple Klumps-like roles as himself and the tree.
Suddenly, it's the most baffling, downbeat tone lurch of 2012 and, weirdly enough, it's kind of also what saves it from turning into as rotten a product as earlier Murphy debacles like Daddy Day Care. Because if consistency or gut-busting laughs aren't the menu for your film then confusion is, at the very least, a non-boring substitute. That's not to say you can't see the ending coming. There's no doom or demise hiding in that pretty tree. But there are worse things out there than another variation on the weirdo philosophy of The Secret or a fresh movie-chance at turning Ebenezer Scrooge into something kinder, gentler and more open to the possibility of allowing Kerry Washington to handcuff him to the bed, right?