“Mr. Church” is such a departure for Eddie Murphy that you want to praise the intent if not the outcome.
An actor reviled for decades of godawful paycheck pictures takes on something resembling an indie dramedy, with a “name” director — for the first time — he ought to be praised.
But “Church” is a faintly patronizing period piece about a black man essentially indentured to a beautiful working class white woman and her daughter. He’s to be their cook, even if little Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin) finds the arrangement creepy.
Mr. Church isn’t “Driving Miss Daisy.” He’s feeding Miss Charlotte.
It’s the 1970s, and Charlotte’s mom (Natascha McElhone) has just lost her married lover. But he was a man of means, so he saw to it that Mr. Church (Murphy) would look after her. He’d cook. Since she’s dying of cancer, he’s also a caregiver.
“I was just asked to cook for you and your child until you passed on.”
And Charlotte isn’t to know Mom is dying. Mom only has six months, so this won’t take long.
Murphy abandons every comic instinct he has to play this guy, a comfort-food cook who listens to jazz and smokes and turns out wondrous pies and cakes and stews and grits.
“You never heard of grits?”
But he’s a man of mystery, fierce about his privacy. And as the months turn into years and Mr. Church transforms Charlotte into an avid reader and makes her the envy of friends with his cooking, that mystery deepens. Charlotte (Britt Robertson), narrating from the start to the finish, just grows more curious.
Does he have a secret family? Is there a dark reason for his indebtedness to Mom’s lover? Is he a criminal, a drunk, a closeted gay man with a hidden life?
Sadly, any of those solutions would be more interesting than the one TV sitcom hack Susan McMartin’s “inspired by a true story” comes up with. The plot seems plausible, but the dialogue, characters, situations — everything that fleshes out that plot — is predigested mush.
Charlie’s equally poor friend (Lucy Fry) uses her looks to get the life she thinks she wants, Charlie’s prom date with a dream boat, Charlie’s mom’s lingering illness which never lets her look anything less than gorgeous and healthy? Been there, seen the Lifetime Original Movie.
The odd clever line stands out in this cut-and-paste scenario. Charlie, even at 10, knows she was “an accident.”
“Your DADDY was the accident. YOU were my miracle!”
Charlotte narrates an explanation for why she avoids her mother once she learns how sick she is. She knows what it is “to love someone so much you actually hate them for leaving you.”
There’s a long, labored history of African American helpers/caregivers shaping and teaching white people humanity, from “Member of the Wedding” to “Driving Miss Daisy” to “The Help.” Bruce Beresford directed that middle film, and finds nothing interesting or new in this situation here. The whole enterprise feels out of date.
As for Murphy, he looks at home in the kitchen, less at home at the piano and only lets us see the odd flash of temper in Mr. Church. He’s to give the self-taught cook, pianist and dressmaker (Oh yes) a zen quality, and rarely lets us see emotion.
“Even his weeping was graceful.”
For anyone who wrote this guy off 20 years ago, the transformation is surprising. But it’s the curse of “Mr. Church” that it’s not more than mere surprise — not startling, dazzling or even that interesting. “Mr. Church” serves up comfort food in an era when every food truck and most indie films offer more interesting fare.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone
Running time: 1:44
Credits: Directed by Bruce Beresford, script by Susan McMartin. A Cinelou release