'Mr. Church': Tribeca Review

A reminder of what a great actor Murphy can be.

Eddie Murphy plays a man hired to cook for a dying woman and her young daughter in Bruce Beresford's drama.

It's been four years since Eddie Murphy's last movie (the execrable A Thousand Words) and a decade since his last worthwhile performance (his Oscar-nominated role in Dreamgirls). But those who've dismissed him for his slapdash paycheck comedies will be eating their words after seeing his sensitive dramatic work in Bruce Beresford's new indie drama receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Playing the title role of Mr. Church, Murphy delivers the sort of superb character turn that may well mark a sea change in his career.

Based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Susan McMartin, the story begins in 1965 Los Angeles with 10-year-old Charlotte, referred to as "Charlie" (Natalie Coughlin), waking up to find a stranger cooking breakfast in the modest home she shares with her single mother, Marie (Natascha McElhone). Calling himself only Mr. Church, he's apparently been hired as a cook for Marie and her daughter by Marie's deceased, and very rich, former lover.

As we soon learn, the arrangement is strictly to be a temporary one; six months, in fact, which is about how much time the doctors have given Marie after her diagnosis of breast cancer. In return for keeping his promise to Marie's benefactor, Mr. Church has been promised a salary for the rest of his life. Charlie, who is unaware of her mother's illness, is instantly resistant to the stranger in their midst, turning up her nose at his impeccably prepared meals. That is, until she reluctantly starts eating them and quickly gets hooked.

Mr. Church, who cooks to the perpetual accompaniment of jazz on the radio, is an endlessly courtly and polite figure, addressing Marie as "ma'am" and referring to Charlie as "my dear." Besides his culinary duties, he introduces Charlie to the joys of reading, issuing her a makeshift library card and allowing her to borrow the classic books with which he's stocked their shelves. He's also intensely private, rebuffing any attempt by Charlie to find out what he does when he's not with her and her mother.

Miraculously, Marie long outlives her diagnosis; living not months but years, long enough for Charlie to grow up into a high-spirited teenager (Britt Robertson) excited about attending the prom with Owen (Xavier Samuel), the boy on whom she's long had a crush. Mr. Church has dutifully kept his promise to Marie's benefactor to stay on for as long as she was alive, in the process becoming a father figure for Charlie and a doting caregiver for Marie. But she eventually succumbs to her illness, and Charlie goes away to study at Boston University, separating from Mr. Church for the first time since he entered their lives.

Two years later she shows up unannounced at his door, pregnant after a one-night stand and with nowhere else to go. He agrees to take her in, with one condition: that she respect his privacy. Although their relationship nearly falls apart when he staggers home drunk one night and discovers her going through his things, something dramatic happens that leads her and her new baby back into his life, this time for good.

The film is a touching coming-of-age tale and an even more touching account of an unlikely friendship marked by love and respect. Beresford, working with material that inevitably recalls his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, never lets the overt sentimentality become too schmaltzy, even if he's a bit hampered by the sometimes melodramatic plotting and schematic characterizations. The film is emotionally manipulative, to be sure, but it's ultimately hard to resist, especially given the quality of the lead performances.

Robertson, so impressive in last year's Disney misfire Tomorrowland, delivers a beautifully modulated performance here: radiant as a lovestruck teen; poignantly moving as a daughter helplessly watching her mother slip away; and convincingly gritty as a struggling single mom, she sustains the film through its myriad emotional phases.

And Murphy is a revelation. He doesn't seem quite right for the role at first, his blazing charisma ostensibly at odds with his character's unassuming, dignified demeanor. But he tamps it down just enough to be fully plausible, and he adds quiet grace notes, both comic and dramatic, that make his Mr. Church just as captivating for us as he is for the people around him. And as the character ages a couple of decades, his performance becomes all the more effective, subtly revealing the vulnerability underneath the smooth facade. It's a shame that it's taken this long for the star to expose this side of his prodigious talent, but better late than never.  

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production: Cinelou Films, EMA Films, Shenghua Entertainment, Voltage Pictures
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone, Xavier Samuel, Lucy Fry, Christian Madsen, McKenna Grace
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenwriter: Susan McMartin
Producers: Lee Nelson, David Buelow, Courtney Solomon, Mark Canton
Executive producers: Yu Wei-chung, Fredy Bush, Dennis Pelino, Brad Kaplan, David Tish, Lawrence Kopeikin, David Anspaugh
Director of photography: Sharone Meir
Production designer: Joseph T. Garrity
Editor: David Beatty
Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
Composer: Mark Isham
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali

Not rated, 105 minutes

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