With on-the-nose dialogue and underwhelming characterization, Mr. Church manages to be as boring to watch as it is uninspired.
Written by former Two and a Half Men writer/producer Susan McMartin and directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Double Jeopardy), Mr. Church follows the unexpected friendship between a young girl named Charlie (played as a child by Natalie Coughlin and as a grown woman by Britt Robertson) and Henry Church (Eddie Murphy), the cook that is hired to look after her and her dying mother (Natascha McElhone).
Eddie Murphy delivers a performance that breathes some life into an otherwise stale script, but it isn’t enough to distract from an annoying protagonist and cliché- riddled voice-over narration that feels painfully contrived.
In a scene near the beginning of the film, Charlie’s mother comments to Henry that a book he has loaned her was too sad for her taste and that she would like to read one with a happy ending. Mr. Church responds with a quip about how some authors just aren’t satisfied until they’ve made their reader cry. I wonder if the filmmakers knew what they were doing when they included this little exchange that seems to perfectly summarize what appears to be the central purpose of this film.
I don’t mind when a movie is obviously attempting to have an emotional impact on its audience; in fact, one that doesn’t is completely missing the point of art in the first place. But Mr. Church, immediately from its first act, is so determined to reduce its audience to a blubbering mess that it seems to forget that before we can care about what happens to a character, we must first care about the characters themselves. Besides the titular Mr. Church, the other characters in the film are overly simplistic in their motivations, words, and actions. There is nothing left for the audience to interpret, deduce, or perceive. To put it another way: this is a film that is trying too hard.
This preoccupation with evoking some sort of extreme emotional response appears to me as a wasted opportunity. There is potential for the story of the friendship between Charlie and Mr. Church to become a commentary on racism, classism, and gender. The setting of the film – Los Angeles in the early 1970’s and 1980’s – seems to, at least, warrant acknowledging that such issues were present. The script flirts with these ideas but never confronts them head-on. A smarter, more carefully-crafted piece of cinema would have balanced the socio-political elements of the setting with nuanced character development. That film may have offered its audience no choice but to become emotionally invested in its characters and their lives – Mr. Church is not that film.
This schmaltz isn’t a complete mess, but it isn’t particularly interesting either.
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