MR. CHURCH (2016) Film Review from the 15th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Xavier Samuels, Lucy Fry, Christian Madsen, and Natasha McElhone.
After the critical success of Driving Miss Daisy, director Bruce Beresford returns with a similar story in Mr. Church, which also follows an African American serving to a white family. Despite the similarities between both films, we do get to see Eddie Murphy return from a four-year hiatus to play a much dramatic role from his well-known comedic characters.
Eddie Murphy plays the mysterious Mr. Henry Church, a cook who serves for single mother Marie (Natascha McElhone) and her feisty young daughter, Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). Mr. Church gives his services to Marie after her ex-lover dies and gives him over to Marie as a parting gift. It doesn’t sit well with Charlotte, but she soon grows fond of Mr. Church after spending time with him at home in the kitchen and reading. We soon learn that Marie is dying of cancer and only has six months to live, which Mr. Church is aware of and helps the family for the six months he was given by his former employer.
We see that the movie goes through different time periods in Charlotte’s life as we jump from 1971 to 1977. During that time frame, Marie manages to successfully survive her disease with help from Mr. Church. We also see Charlotte grow up from a teenager to a young adult, who is played by the young Britt Robertson. During the film, Charlotte also tries to uncover more about Mr. Church, but he avoids telling her more about himself and wants to keep to himself during his off hours.
We find out a little more about Mr. Church as the movie continues. He lives a pretty lonely life outside of work and goes every night to a club called Jelly’s Place. That’s pretty much all we can get as we don’t know much about his family life. It’s one of those instances where we can guess where Mr. Church is coming from as we go deep into the film. Charlotte also does her own investigation despite Mr. Church urges her not to question him on it.
We follow Charlotte into college, where a one-night stand leaves her pregnant with nowhere to go. She decides to go for Mr. Church for help and ends up staying at his place. Charlotte continues to learn more about her friend, who still keeps to himself but always ends up leaving matches from Jelly’s Place on the counter. We find Mr. Church coming home drunk and confront his anger on his abusive father. This is where Eddie Murphy truly shines in his performance. The rest of the scenes that he’s in have him play as a simple man with little emotion.
With the film focusing on life and death, Bruce Beresford’s choice to make these sad moments puts off a tone that can be too cheerful. There are parts of the film where Charlotte narrates some big moments in her life and some of the people she knows that can play off as uncomfortable against the background of the story. We don’t get time to process these moments, as we get so happy and hopeful. There’s nothing wrong with having that kind of filmmaking, as long as the two ideas don’t mesh together.
Susan McMartin wrote a powerful script, which is based on her experiences. The story, however, isn’t structured properly and isn’t relatable to the viewer. Beresford does well in translating Susan’s script onto the screen, but he never livens up or connects with the characters. Even the reveals in the film aren’t much of a surprise when you think about it. The film often changes viewpoints and weakens the story and the emotional climax falls short with the narration by Charlotte.
The only thing the film has got going is Eddie Murphy’s amazing acting. We see a complicated man who can cook, knows how to play the piano, and has a fondness to jazz. Murphy shows calmness in his role and also intensity when he gets pushed to the edge. Mr. Church is a great comeback for Murphy as an actor where he showcases his character with authenticity, kindness, and modest integrity.
With the rest of the cast, Britt Robertson puts on a lasting impression in the film. Lucy Fry and Xavier Samuel put on some mediocre performances as Charlotte’s best friend and crush, but it is Robertson who helps Murphy carry out the film. Even Nastascha McElhone puts on a worthy performance as a mother who is strong even after being diagnosed with cancer.
Overall, Mr. Church doesn’t leave a lasting impact as it does in Bruce’s other film Driving Miss Daisy despite their similar plots. Eddie Murphy puts on a memorable performance as the eponymous character, who expands his talent range from comedy into drama. Murphy has found a noteworthy role that is career defining for the actor. As we see him age in the film, his performance never falters and we get to see how vulnerable he is underneath his joyful personality.
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