From the director of Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford) comes Tribeca 2016 selection Mr. Church (or Cooking For Miss Daisy), where another African American worker plays mentor to his Caucasian female “boss.”
The formula is simple. Swap Morgan Freeman for Eddie Murphy, over-indulge in Pleasantville sweetness, and beat viewers into submission with an emotional journey primed for Lifetime syndication. Tug on some heartstrings and prey upon your audience’s incessant desire to be uplifted and touched – sounds like prime Oscar fodder, no? Not when your tonal composition comes together like a handful of conflicting musical genres being played in displeasing synchrony.
Eddie Murphy returns from his four-year movie hiatus to play the titular Mr. Church, a personal chef hired to care for a single mother, Marie (Natascha McElhone), and her young daughter, Charlotte (Britt Robertson). There’s a whole backstory about Charlotte’s father never marrying Marie, but he’s the one who hires Mr. Church to care for his “family” after his passing – mainly because Marie is only given 6 months to live. Charlotte has no idea her mother is battling breast cancer, which leads to her immediate apprehension towards her “new black cook.” But this awkwardness eventually dissipates, and Charlotte finds a lifelong friend with a knack for cooking, reading and keeping certain things private.
For all the death, cheating and talk of diseases, Bruce Beresford’s befuddling decision to pretty-up otherwise downer moments establishes an off-putting tone that’s all-too cheery. There’s nothing wrong with a “feel good” piece, but the way Charlotte narrates certain tidbits – like one character’s DUI manslaughter that kills a 4-year-old – plays awkwardly against jovial pop-tunes. We never have time to process these gut-punch moments, as we’re pumped full of sugary, saccharine sweetness akin to snorting Pixy Stix while mainlining maple syrup. Again, there’s nothing wrong with such happy-go-lucky filmmaking, but not at the expense of jarring tonal contrasts.
That’s not to poke fun at Susan McMartin’s script either, which she loosely based on true events – but Mr. Church is rigid, structured storytelling that represents everything cathartic jazz music does not. Audiences will find themselves stuck in a period-piece shadow box that – despite prim-and-proper charms – comes across as hackneyed and overproduced. Beresford telegraphs his film’s trajectory from scene one, and never cares to liven up McMartin’s words with something more relatable or connective.
There’s a very intrusive wall built between the screen and its audience, which sucks a majority of each actor’s energy right out of thin air. If you need an example, look no further than Mr. Church’s “secretive” nightlife persona – a “grand reveal” that barely even raises an eyebrow. We wait, night after night, for there to be some confrontation when Mr. Church returns from Jelly’s Place (a suggestive nightclub), yet instead of an emotional climax, Charlotte merely narrates the situation away. She simply states that Mr. Church stops going, and he does! These are the continual storytelling tactics that dilute Mr. Church, never finding a unique voice or differing viewpoint to offer on this stale, tasteless loaf of yesterday’s best.
But there is a positive in all this nothingness – Eddie Murphy’s dramatic role. There’s no one-liners to be found, or gags to be goofed this time around. From the very first time we see Murphy, sprinkling spices in a simmering pot, we’re treated to a much more restrained talent. An actor who can convey calmness with the drag of a cigarette, or smolder a stare through foggy vapors emitted when boiling water. Mr. Church is a welcome turn for the previously MIA comedic actor, who latches onto a caretaker persona with sincerity, compassion and understated honesty.
As for the other cast members, Robertson is the only one who really finds a lasting impression worth noting. Xavier Samuel transforms into a slick-haired American boy with little definition, and Natascha McElhone is strong enough as a dying cancer patient, but Robertson’s primped perkiness is what carries Mr. Church (aside from Mr. Church himself). Charlotte is still a monologue-driven character who wavers between aggressively scripted dramatics, but Robertson’s talents fit the time capsule mentality well.
Mr. Church feels like the billion other “unexpected mentor” stories where two racial opposites end up finding comfort in one another, but without any of the impact that Driving Miss Daisy previously established. It’s a shame, too, because Eddie Murphy deserves more recognition for not pulling an Adam Sandler and FORCING comedy to happen. Instead, the actor redefined his career by waiting for a worthy, possibly personal cause, which translates passion to screen with rejuvenating affection – if you can ignore the shammy world that Bruce Beresford builds around him, that is.
Mr. Church wastes a wonderful dramatic turn by Eddie Murphy on storytelling so stale you could chip a tooth on it.