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Bruce Beresford’s “Mr. Church” is the kind of movie that begins with a title card reading: “Based on a true friendship.” In fact, it might be the only movie that begins with a title card reading: “Based on a true friendship.” This is a movie that charts previously unexplored regions of mawkishness; a tearjerker that milks your eyeballs with all the subtlety of a farmer trying to fill their morning pail. But — and this is something that nobody’s been able to say for a very long time — Eddie Murphy makes it work.
Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, now 76, has quietly kept himself busy in the decades since since “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture in 1990. Now, after biding his time with trashy thrillers (“Double Jeopardy”) and hippie comedies (“Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), he’s back with something of a spiritual sequel to his Oscar-winning dramedy, filtering the skeleton of that questionable dramedy through the lens of a classic YA paperback.
Inspired by the enduring bond that formed between screenwriter Susan McMartin and the live-in cook who changed her life, “Mr. Church” takes us back to the halcyon days of 1971 Los Angeles, where a vaguely angelic single mother named Marie (Natasha McElhone) lives in a sun-dappled house with her precocious young daughter, Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). Marie is sick with breast cancer, and has been given six months to live; Charlotte is 10-years-old, and has been carefully shielded from her mother’s illness.
On the morning the film begins, a graceful and soft-spoken black man has strolled into their kitchen with a fedora on his head and a cigarette resting on his lower lip. He’s a cook by the name of Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy), and he’s been loaned to Marie by her late ex-lover, given a lifetime salary in exchange for promising that he’d work as the dying woman’s personal chef until she passed.
What happened to Mr. Church’s previous employer? Where did he get the money to pay for this arrangement? How long ago could he have died if he knew that Marie was terminally ill, herself? The film bulldozes right over any of the questions that might interfere with the emotional pull of its premise, as Beresford tries to rush past the loaded dynamics of a black man effectively being bequeathed to a new white family.
Marie turns out to be something of a miracle, surviving for another six years. And Mr. Church, true to his word, has a Michelin-quality meal waiting for Charlotte — who morphs into “Tomorrowland” star Britt Robertson during high school — and her mother every morning and every night. Eventually, Marie dies, but the complicated friendship between Charlotte and Mr. Church is just getting started.
All the while, Charlotte refers to him by the strict address of the film’s title — if you took a drink every time she said “Mr. Church,” you’d be dead by the end of the opening credits. That formality, echoed by Beresford’s stately and hyper-competent direction (a refreshing change of pace at the end of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which was focused on emerging filmmakers), is what Mr. Church uses to keep Charlotte at a distance. Mr. Church is an intensely private person, and the only time he ever raises his voice to Charlotte is when she asks about his private life.
The color of Mr. Church’s skin is one thing he can’t hide, though it’s only explicitly commented upon once. Perhaps, had this story been set during the ’60s instead of the ’70s, the idea of a black man effectively raising a white girl might have been a bit more pronounced. As it stands, the racial divide only serves to cloak Mr. Church in an unspoken and seemingly impermeable otherness — one gets the sense that Charlotte wouldn’t have been quite so tantalized by what the cook did at night if he wasn’t her sole window into an otherwise alien strata of American life.
There is an uncomfortable Bagger Vance-like aura around the character, but “Mr. Church” is a subjective story seen through the eyes of a coddled little girl in progress — as Charlotte’s precious, hyper-affected voiceover narration makes it impossible to forget — and the film steadily chips away at that troublesome trope as Charlotte grows up. Beresford, like Brad Bird before him, leans on Robertson’s all-American earnestness to keep his movie upright as it bounces from one unbelievable development to another (a thread involving the local drunk is a standout doozy in a film that has no idea how to meaningfully integrate its subplots), and the actress is equally convincing as a teenager, an adult, and as someone being churned through the undefinable points in between. Charlotte’s naïveté grows wearisome as she begins to gain a better understanding of Mr. Church’s vaguely tormented personal history, but McMartin’s script at least finds a way to justify it by the end.
Eddie Murphy has been absent from movie screens just long enough for us to miss him. As Mr. Church, his first film role in four years, Murphy delivers the most subdued performance of his career, but one that taps into the strength of the star-powered charisma that has made him such an irrepressible icon of modern Hollywood. Here, he creates a character who’s quiet, but never too quiet; noble, but never at his own expense. Mr. Church is a brilliant man — a polymath — limited by his demons into a life of humble service. The actor knows that people are curious as to what makes him tick, and his latest character redirects that curiosity to great effect.
The movie around him, coaxed by Charlotte’s childhood curiosity, acts as though Mr. Church is hiding a huge secret. Is he gay? Is he a contract killer? Is he a gay contract killer? The truth is never made definitively clear one way or the other, but the film builds to the lyrically banal nature of what we do learn about Mr. Church as though he were Keyser Söze. The limp anticlimax is the least stirring moment of the entire film, epitomizing why Beresford and McMartin were unwise to apply such an emotionally pornographic approach to such a poignant human drama.
Beresford rushes from one immense life event to the next, glazing over the mundane moments that string them together and keep them in place. It’s like watching someone trace a detailed illustration with a pastry brush; like looking at the Earth from space, seeing all of the city lights twinkle in the night, and assuming that there must be nothing in the darkness between them. Mr. Church’s name might be incidental, but it’s a good fit for a movie that’s less interested in portraying the humane story of an unlikely home than it is in proselytizing about it. As for Murphy, we can only pray that this is the start of a new chapter in his career.
“Mr. Church” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Cinelou Releasing will distribute the film later this year.
Watch the trailer for Tribeca Film Festival entry “Elvis & Nixon” below: