When a famous actor or actress disappears from the limelight, one of two things happens. We either notice or we don’t. In the case of Eddie Murphy, who has given us a multitude of excellent comedies over the years, his career seemed to take a slide after his Oscar nomination for “Dreamgirls” was followed by a series of poorly received comedic endeavors. Then he was simply gone. And I have to admit, I really didn’t notice.
At least until I saw the trailer for the new family drama “Mr. Church,” a film I had never heard of until my sister sent me a link to the trailer. Upon seeing Murphy was one of the lead actors, I realized I hadn’t seen him in a long time. In fact, this is Murphy’s first film in three or four years.
And if he could have chosen a comeback movie, and he obviously did, he couldn’t have picked a better one that “Mr. Church,” because he is excellent as an enigmatic cook hired to care for a young girl and her dying mother. I will say this is a much more dramatic and understated performance than we’ve come to expect from Murphy, but I will also say this might be the best I’ve ever seen him. I’m a fan of actors taking roles outside of their wheelhouse, and that’s because we can get surprises such as the one we find here.
As for the film itself, some might find fault with is overuse of narration and a somewhat simple and slow story, but the lead performances from Murphy and co-star Britt Robertson (“Mother’s Day”) combine to elevate this to a really wonderful experience and one that will produce both laughs and tears.
The story, which begins in the late 1970s, is told through the point of view of Charlotte, who is played as a 10-year-old by newcomer Natalie Coughlin and later by Robertson as she grows older. She lives alone with her mother Marie (Natascha McElhone, “Californication”) in California. Unbeknownst to Charlotte, Marie is dying from breast cancer and has only been given six months to live. Their lives are forever changed, however, with the arrival of Mr. Church (Murphy), who tells Marie her late rich boyfriend hired him to cook for her and Charlotte until Marie passes.
And that is the set-up for our story, which follows the unlikely and life-changing friendship that blossoms between Charlotte and Mr. Church over the next 15-20 years.
Although this is a well-made movie and tells its story admirably, the film stands on the performances of Murphy and Robertson. This is such an unexpected role for Murphy, I wouldn’t be surprised if his name is called once nomination season rolls around. As for Robertson, I have been a fan of her work for some time, although her performances are often better than the films she’s performing in. Here she plays a nice foil to the mostly calm Mr. Church and delivers a believable character arc as Charlotte grows–as played by her–from roughly 16 to her late 20s.
You could also argue that the film might have been more interesting had it been told from Mr. Church’s point of view rather than Charlotte’s, especially since many of the mysteries really don’t get answers in the end. And while that version of “Mr. Church” might have been good, or even better, I still would have missed the version we got. Sure, some might find it slow, but for me, it was just right.
The film is rated PG-13 for thematic elements.
(This is a abbreviated version of the full review available in our printed or e-edition papers.)