You would think that being a comic legend, an Oscar-nominee and starring in some of Hollywood’s greatest blockbusters would mean having an abundance of scripts to choose from. If this were an attempt to secure a second Oscar nomination after his well-deserved one for “Dreamgirls,” he’s barking up the right tree.
But Eddie Murphy says part of the reason he hasn’t made many movies in recent years is because he hasn’t been asked a lot.
“I don’t usually get offered stuff,” the 55-year-old said in a recent interview.
So when he got sent the dramatic script for “Mr. Church,” where Murphy plays a caretaker who bonds with a struggling family, he couldn’t resist.
“‘Wow, I get to work with a great director and good actors,'” Murphy recalled thinking.
The fact that it only took 27 days to shoot was a lure too, particularly since he’s the new father to his ninth child, four-month-old Izzy Oona Murphy.
“It was like a really easy movie to go do and everybody was really cool, so I just went and did it, then I went back to the hammock in the backyard,” Murphy said.
“Mr.Church,” which opened nationwide on Friday, is Murphy’s first film in four years.
While he’s been spending plenty of downtime at home with his family, he hasn’t been completely idle; he’s been doing music and last year released a hit reggae single “Oh Jah Jah.” He has also been coming up with ideas for what he describes as one last comedy tour: “The Last Laugh.”
“I wanted to get back on the stage and do stand up and go full circle like where I started,” explained Murphy. “Just do like one last tour or show or something. But you need like an hour and a half of stuff and the only way you get stuff is to just live life.”
He added: “I stopped making movies to just be a person trying to come up with some jokes. But what happened was, I don’t think I came up with any jokes, I just wound up sitting in the backyard playing guitar and that kind of didn’t suck. …. then in the middle of all of that, (“Mr. Church” producer) Mark Canton sent me this script and I was like, ‘This is really good.'”
Based on a true story, Murphy plays a chef that’s been hired to look after a dying single mother and her only daughter. Six years later the mother is still alive as Mr. Church becomes accepted and loved as part of the family all while they overcome obstacles through care and love for one another.
“I think it’s really sweet and charming and heartfelt. I’m looking forward to seeing it with an audience,” said Murphy.
Towards the end of the movie, Mr. Church’s cheerful but steely demeanor is broken when he sheds a tear. As Murphy tried to recall if he has ever shed a tear before on the big screen, he remembered his 2002 flick labeled by critics as one of the worst movies ever made – “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.”
“There was a big cry scene in ‘Pluto Nash’ but I think people had walked out of the theater by the time they came out,” Murphy said while hysterically laughing.
“They walked out before the big cry scene … I cried my ass off and y’all missed it.”
“This is based on a true friendship,” reads the title card at the beginning of the film. That friendship begins when one of the friends is sent to work for the family of the other. Marie (Natascha McElhone) is having an affair with a married man named Richard.
When Richard drops dead, his will bequeaths the cooking services of Mr. Church (Murphy) to Marie and her wretched little brat of a daughter, Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). Australian Bruce Beresford, who helmed that 1989 drama, Driving Over Miss Daisy also directed “Mr. Church,” and his skills haven’t declined. Times have changed, though, and setting “Mr. Church” in 1970s Los Angeles doesn’t prevent it from playing like a fable of the 1950;s.
Charlotte wants no part of Mr. Church or his food, going so far as to tell everyone in her school, “We have a new cook and HE’S BLACK!!!”, emphasizing the color for maximum shock value. Nobody gives a damn that Charlotte is throwing tantrums about Mr. Church, least of all Poppy (Madison Wolfe), Charlotte’s only friend, who is more than willing to eat his entrees.
Charlotte gives her mother a hard time about Mr. Church, not knowing that Marie is secretly dying of breast cancer. Mr. Church is tasked to be around until Marie joins Richard in the great, Beyond. Afterwards, Mr. Church will go on his merry way and Charlotte will probably go to an orphanage. Mr. Church’s stipend from Richard only covers six months of food for his charges, which coincides with the amount of time Marie has left. He is promised a lifetime salary if he does this short-term favor.
However, Marie manages to keep her cancer at bay for over six years before she gives up the ghost. This allows Charlotte to mature into a still-bratty, graduating high school senior played by Britt Robertson. Robertson narrates “Mr. Church” in long, hyperbolic passages that tell rather than show. Her words serve as the only proof of the close bond she has with Mr. Church
Mr. Church does all the work in this relationship: He puts up with her disrespect when she’s a kid; he pays for her college education AND everything that transpires for the 5-1/2 extra years Marie stays alive; he even takes Charlotte in when she comes back from college pregnant. In return, Charlotte says nice things about Mr. Church on the soundtrack but doesn’t do squat for him on the screen until it’s too late. Watching this one-sided interaction, you almost wish Murphy had taken a page from his comedy concert “Eddie Murphy Raw” and asked Charlotte, “what have you done for me lately?!”
“Henry Joseph Church could have been anything he wanted,” Charlotte narrates in the opening scene. “He chose to cook. The secret, he said, was jazz.” We learn that Mr. Church has lots of secrets. He’s got secrets in his lemonade, in his grits and in his life. While he tells us the former two secrets, the latter one remains frustratingly unrevealed. Charlotte can’t get a single detail from Mr. Church about what he does after he leaves her house. Even after years of raising her, he won’t tell her any of his personal details, because if he does, the film cannot attempt to defend itself against the idea that Mr. Church is simply a Noble guy with no autonomy of his own. His secrets “prove” his independence.
But Susan McMartin’s script has no credible defense to employ. We never see Mr. Church with anyone but Charlotte, and the film is maddeningly vague about what he’s doing off-screen when he’s not with her. For example, when Charlotte moves in with Mr. Church, McMartin gives him daddy issues which manifest themselves whenever he comes in drunk after his visits to the mysterious Jelly’s Café. Beresford doesn’t even give Murphy screen time to visually enact these verbal tirades against his invisible dad; we see Charlotte listening to them in her room instead.
“Jelly’s Café had a reputation,” Charlotte tells us, which may be why Mr. Church is so afraid to mention he goes there. But what is that reputation? We never find out. I’ve got a theory On the surface, Jelly’s Café looks like an after-hours jazz club. It would be absurd if Mr. Church’s big, unmentionable secret is that he plays piano there, especially considering that the one personal detail he mentions in the film is that he’s a musician (plus, he plays piano for Charlotte in several scenes). I think Jelly’s Café is a gay establishment, and Mr. Church’s homosexuality is the big, scary Thing That Must Not Be Named. (At one point, Mr. Church drunkenly screams out to his dad “Don’t call me a fag!” and “Why did you put me out?!”) So not only does “Mr. Church” put a character in a retro role better suited for a film made in 1957, as I said at the beginning as he does the same thing to a homosexual one.
Did anyone, Murphy included, stop to consider how this story of Mr. Church’s sacrifice would play to more enlightened viewers?
Sure, we get the letter at the end that explains (in voiceover) what Mr. Church thinks he received from this arrangement, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have seen it play out between Murphy and Robinson, from both their perspectives instead of from just her character’s?
If nothing else, Murphy is committed to the role, to the point where I wish they’d at least given him a sense of humor I mean after all a gay cooking piano player as to have a razor sharp wit just to survive.
We are glad to see Mr.Murphy, He was missed.