Mr. Church

mr-church-photo

I saw a trailer for this at the Angelika Film Center, which I believe is the only theatre in town showing it. The trailer looked good, although it gave too much away.

When I read the production notes before watching a screener of the film, it stated this was the first movie Eddie Murphy has done in four years.

Once I started watching, it was the first movie I had seen the beautiful Natascha McElhone (Californication) in since The Truman Show. She plays Marie Brody, who has breast cancer and is told she has six months to live. It’s the early ‘70s, and she just came out of a relationship with a rich guy who turned out to be married. When he died, he made a deal with his chef Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy), to cook and prepare meals for her until she dies. Marie is keeping her terminal illness from her 10-year-old daughter Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). And yes, the movie is as predictable as it sounds. Yet early on, it sucked me in.

I enjoy the fact that Church plays jazz on a transistor radio in the kitchen when he cooks. I think it’s adorable how when Charlotte says she wants Apple Jacks for breakfast, he’s preparing these elaborate meals that she ends up loving. He has a twinkle in his eye as he quickly looks away, so she doesn’t catch him noticing how thrilled she is by these culinary treats.

It’s nice that when Church starts acting as a surrogate father, the script doesn’t try to do too much with that. He recommends books for her to read, and just gives her small doses of advice. When the girl acts snotty towards her mom and her worsening illness, he doesn’t take her aside for some long, drawn out speech about how terrible that is. That was a nice touch, and it’s a shame the second half of the movie couldn’t stick to that. It just became a series of convenient contrivances and eye-rolling moments.

A lot of people are going to be upset by the stereotypical black character who is so selfless, he is merely there to make the white characters’ lives better. Two-time Oscar-nominated director Bruce Beresford got this complaint for Driving Miss Daisy (a film I disliked, and argue with my mom about at least once a month). Most of Beresford’s films have disappointed me (I did like Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies), and this movie seems to be disappointing many critics. Yet despite all of the flaws, it was still enjoyable to watch.

The screenplay by Susan McMartin is apparently semi-autobiographical, which makes me want to know the real story.

The older Charlotte is played by Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland and The Longest Ride), and she’s terrific.

Christian Madsen (Divergent) is awful, as the town drunk that has a redemption arc that doesn’t feel the least bit realistic. It was overacted and overwritten.

Eddie Murphy is terrific, in a surprisingly understated way. Even though he’s done so many awful movies, he’s obviously a good actor (Dreamgirls, 48 Hours, Coming to America, Bowfinger, and a handful of other films prove that). I don’t have a hard time believing he could be well-read, an amazing chef, seamstress, brilliant pianist, terrific artist, and good father figure. The problem is that we don’t know anything about him. We do get to learn about his hard home life growing up, but that was it.

When there’s speculation that he might be frequenting a gay bar, or that he has an alcohol problem, my girlfriend said something interesting. She said, “This is the type of movie that won’t offend anybody. They don’t show anything that will turn anybody off. I can recommend it to old people I know, and not worry about whether or not anything in it will bother them.”

Even when Charlotte gets pregnant in college, it’s not shown in a real negative way. In fact, her entire college years were glossed over in a two minute montage.

The movie really needed to delve a bit more into Mr. Church, as he was an interesting character. Even if it would’ve been that throw-away move films do where he reveals it all in a letter to her at the end…would’ve been more satisfying than us leaving knowing nothing about him.

Yet despite all the problems the film had, I enjoyed spending time with these characters. It also gets bonus points for a great soundtrack (which included Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Bellamy Brothers, and a slow dance done to the amazing Motels song “Only the Lonely”).

I was also thrilled that this is the second movie I’ve seen in a month (Southside With You being the first) that features the paintings of the brilliant and underrated Ernie Barnes. When I Googled, thinking the painting they showed was The Sugar Shack (used as the cover of the Marvin Gaye album “I Want You”), I found out Eddie Murphy owns that painting. So, there ya go.

This gets 2 ½ stars out of 5.