By Kam Williams
Marie Brody (Natascha McElhone) was told she only had half-a-year to live when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1965.
But, not wanting to upset her daughter, she initially hid the fact that she was terminally-ill from 10-year-old Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin).
Marie’s recently-deceased boyfriend did her a big favor by providing in his will a chef (Eddie Murphy) who’d prepare all of her meals until the day she died. Imagine Charlotte’s shock the day a mysterious Black man knocks on the door and announces he’s their new full-time cook.
Initially, Marie balks at the intrusion, given how Mr. Church (Murphy) never bothers to measure his ingredients or use utensils besides a fork and knife while at work in the kitchen. Plus, some of his “exotic” dishes, like hominy grits, certainly take a little getting used to.
Church nevertheless attempts to ingratiate himself by extending his daily duties beyond the culinary, happily serving as a surrogate father to Charlotte and as a home health aide to her. Marie gradually warms to the stranger when he whets her thirst for knowledge by bringing over classic books by literary greats such as Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton. More importantly, Marie proceeds to outlive her doctor’s death sentence, and a term of employment that was supposed to last merely months stretches into the next decade.
That is the poignant premise of “Mr. Church,” a bittersweet period piece directed by two-time Oscar-nominee Bruce Beresford. The picture’s semi-autobiographical screenplay was inspired by the life of its scriptwriter, Susan McMartin.
The film works to the extent one is able to scale a couple of high hurdles placed in the viewer’s path. First, one has to buy into the idea of perennial funnyman Eddie Murphy playing a serious role. Second, one must be willing to stomach yet another, stereotypical “magical Negro” character; meaning a selfless, African-American more concerned with the welfare of a white person than with his or her own needs.
Additionally, a few of the plot developments are a little farfetched. For instance, has anyone ever heard of anybody saving up enough money to pay for college by clipping coupons? Neither have I.