For me, watching a film like Mr. Church was a bit of an eye-opening experience. Like most people, I’ve grown up knowing Eddie Murphy as a comedic actor. He got a start on Saturday Night Live and remained there until 1984 when he decided to focus on movies. The rest is, as they say, history. Murphy has been a staple in film now for nearly forty years and while he’s not been in a film since Mr. Church in 2016, it’s safe to say that we’re possibly on the verge of seeing a resurgence of the actor in more dramatic roles.
Murphy plays the title character of the film. Henry Church comes to work for Marie Brooks (Natascha McElhone), a single mother raising her headstrong and plucky daughter Charlotte (Britt Robertson). Charlie, as she’s called, doesn’t understand why there’s a black man in their house cooking. However, the audience quickly realizes that Marie is dying of breast cancer and Charlie’s father, a rich man who’s since died, has provided funds and Mr. Church as a way to take care of the family as Marie dies. Marie defies her six-month timetable to live and lives until shortly before Charlie graduates from high school. As a result, Charlie is listless and spends two years at college in Boston before she becomes pregnant and returns home to live with Mr. Church. While living with Mr. Church, Charlie discovers that the man has secrets and sometimes you don’t really know your friends no matter how close you are to them.
Despite that last little bit sounding morbid, Mr. Church isn’t a thriller. It’s a genuinely heartwarming tale that should have been Murphy’s comeback had it not been so unfavorably reviewed. While I do admit it would have been interesting to see Mr. Church’s story told through his own eyes but for what it was, the film was poignant and beautiful, and Murphy’s acting was superb.
What I appreciated about the film was that the narrative made time to give the audience progressive and regressive character development for almost every single character we’re given access to which, as a writer, is phenomenal to see. Charlie’s best friend Poppy is the only character to get a regressive arc but everyone else changes through the film for the better. We see Charlie go from stubborn, spoiled, and generally disliking Mr. Church to being Mr. Church’s caretaker and learning remarkable things from him. It’s this type of storytelling that I’m drawn to the most and seeing it on display with such depth and such phenomenal acting really drew me in.
Of course, Murphy can’t be ignored. He carried the film on his shoulders despite Robertson being the main actress and character. I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Dreamgirls so this film is my introduction to Murphy’s dramatic acting and, while I still need to see Dreamgirls, I’m glad this film was the first I saw. There’s a great subtlety to Murphy in Mr. Church. Nothing is over the top. This is a character rooted in realism (in fact, the film was based on a true story) and Murphy really knocked it out of the park. I need more films where Murphy plays a dramatic role as opposed to a comedic one. Like Robin Williams before him, he has the talent to really take dramatics and run with it, and I really want to see it. If Mr. Church is anything to judge by, he really has a future in the more dramatic shades of Hollywood.
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