As most baldly evidenced by his refusal to tell a joke at last year’s “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary celebration, Eddie Murphy has largely set aside any on-screen comedic inclinations. Thus, it’s no surprise that in “Mr. Church,” his first cinematic project in four years, he delivers not a single mirthful one-liner as the title character, a compassionate cook who becomes the surrogate paterfamilias to a girl and her terminally ill mother. “Inspired by a true friendship,” but coming across as merely stale dramatic gruel, it affords its headliner minimal opportunity to flash his once-brilliant charisma, though its cozy sentimentality may help the film stir up decent theatrical attention when it debuts later this year.
Thanks to the amazing financial generosity of her recently deceased lover, Marie (Natascha McElhone) is gifted in 1971 with her own personal chef, Mr. Church (Murphy), who simply appears one morning in her kitchen, much to the consternated chagrin of Marie’s daughter Charlotte (played, as a child, by Natalie Coughlin). The girl’s grumpy reservations about her new, out-of-the-blue paternal role model soon melts away, however, amidst a barrage of culinary creations concocted by this angelic kitchen wonder, beginning with a breakfast of steak and eggs that also features an unfamiliar side dish that mystifies Charlotte — only to have Mr. Church calmly intone, “There are a lot of secrets in my grits.”
Grits aren’t the only things masking confidences in “Mr. Church”: Marie conceals her breast cancer from Charlotte, while Mr. Church — who arrives each day in the same brown shirt, long black overcoat and brimmed hat — reveals nothing about his own personal life.
Years later, after Charlotte (embodied as a teen and twentysomething by “Tomorrowland” star Britt Robertson) comes to live with Mr. Church, his secretive late-night trips to a jazz lounge and drunken rants about a religious father who apparently disowned him help shed some light on his past. Yet for the most part, the film is content to keep Murphy’s character — who prepares food instinctively by hand, is a voracious reader of classic literature, and also paints, dances, and plays the piano — shrouded in a mysterious heavenly glow.
Refused a proper backstory, and blessed with a benevolent, even-keeled disposition (“Even his weeping was graceful,” admires Charlotte) to match his bountiful natural gifts, Mr. Church comes across as the hoariest of “magical negro” stereotypes, and his duty caring for Caucasian women in need makes his tale something of a complementary side dish to director Bruce Beresford’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” The man’s preternaturally warm, poised composure is only shattered by select instants when he uncharacteristically rages about his privacy, and in casting Mr. Church as a figure of polar-opposite extremes, the film skips over the tangled, messy emotional stuff that defines actual human beings, thereby relegating him to an aw-shucks saintly vehicle for Murphy’s benign grins, concerned glances and boozy grousing.
Guided by nostalgic-storybook narration from Charlotte, shot by Beresford through a hazy filter of film grain and enveloping celestial light and smothered by composer Mark Isham in tender, treacly tones, “Mr. Church” recounts Charlotte’s coming-of-age odyssey alongside Mr. Church as a series of deaths, “miracles” and instances in which people — including local drunk Larson (Christian Madsen) and her best friend Poppy (Lucy Fry) — save, and are saved by, one another. Written by Susan McMartin, the story’s everything-repeats structure is similarly designed to tug on one’s heartstrings. But like devouring a tub of ice cream (or, per Charlotte and Mr. Church’s running joke, a box of Apple Jacks cereal) in one sitting, consuming so much phony, retrograde schmaltz proves a stomach-churning endeavor.
While Mr. Church’s climactic pronouncement, “I’m just a man,” may be laugh-out-loud disingenuous, Charlotte is a slightly more credible fiction, if only because Robertson occasionally infuses her protagonist with subtle emotional nuance. That’s most apparent when Charlotte is dropped off after the prom by hunky date Owen (Xavier Samuel) and, on her mother’s doorstep, she doesn’t receive a goodnight kiss — a moment that the actress nimbly expresses as a lightning-quick procession of excitement, disappointment, embarrassment and fear. In that brief sequence of emotions, Robertson displays understated delicacy and maturity that’s all the more jarring for existing within such a crude sugary-sweet fantasy.