Eddie Murphy hasn't been seen onscreen in a few years (no, the Beverly Hills Cop TV movie doesn't count), and after watching Mr. Church, I realized that I missed his screen presence. The film itself has its merits, but it's uplifted and raised to more emotional worth due to his presence. Director Bruce Beresford and writer Susan McMartin treat the story with endearment, even when it sometimes glosses over several of the film's narrative depth.
Ten-year-old Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin) is not pleased when she finds out that her mother, Marie's (Natascha McElhone), former lover has commissioned Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy) to be their new cook. What Charlotte doesn't know is that Mr. Church is to only be with them for six months because her mom's dying of breast cancer and has only been given that long to live. But six months turns into six years and still Mr. Church remains. Not only does he cook, but he helps around the house during the day, assists Marie when her health deteriorates, and is there for Charlotte throughout her life. They become a family and share a sense of home with each other, despite the strenuous circumstances that brought them together.
Because it's from Charlotte's perspective, with her voice over carrying a large part of the movie and used to both inform and to allow us into what she's thinking, there's a tremendous amount that goes unsaid or unexplored from Mr. Church's side. Murphy gives a layered performance that allows for his body language and facial expressions to interpret the things he never says or does. His character is a mystery to the Brooks women. He cooks for them, takes care of them, and is their friend. At the same time, they barely know anything about his life save for the fact that he's multi-talented and patient. But what does Mr. Church do in his spare time? What makes him tick? It's a mystery that is never completely solved, but one that Charlotte would like to know the answers to, only to discover that she's known Mr. Church all along.
The film takes place over the span of fifteen years, from 1971 through the mid-1980s. And ultimately one of the pitfalls of the film is that it refuses to really acknowledge the outside world. Interactions with other characters is minimal and vague, and besides spending a lifetime together, Mr. Church and Charlotte never discuss anything significant. There are several movies where members of a household befriend the help, but it's time to move away from these kinds of films.
In the end, it isn't the help who are the center of the story, though Mr. Church will have you believing this is true. For example, Murphy's character occasionally goes out to a jazz club, comes home drunk and has angry, one-sided conversations with a father who's no longer present. But the film never allows him to open up about it, and the same goes for Charlotte. It's almost as if they're in a bubble, untouched by the remainder of the world.
Certain frustrations aside, Mr. Church does make you feel and on several occasions brings a quiet sense of beauty in a life lived with love and a few heartwarming moments. It can certainly be sweet and the relationship between Mr. Church and his found family tugs at the heart strings when the time calls for it. And while it's a film you'll walk out of feeling touched and melancholy over, it's not one that will be memorable over time.