Eddie Murphy should have won the best supporting Oscar for his role in “Dreamgirls.”
When he didn’t, there was no particular outcry at the depredations of fate for two reasons: 1) the winner was one of the great character actors in movies, the long-overdue Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine.” And 2), most importantly, Murphy had virtually taken himself out of contention when one of his overcaffeinated multi-role show-off extravaganzas, “Norbit” opened at almost the same time. Very few wanted to be reminded how powerful and disciplined an actor he could be.
He has worked abstemiously ever since. But in his first film in four years, he clearly wants to remind us how much exceptional work he can do in a reserved role where he only raises his voice five times – and even then, only briefly.
The movie is “Mr. Church,” a very efficient tearjerker which was long ago, in its larval period, supposed to star Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman and be directed by David Anspaugh, who directed “Hoosiers.”
I think I prefer this one to whatever might have been. The director here is 75-year-old Bruce Beresford, whose talents are many and varied but impressive as often as not, especially when he works intimately and at close range (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “Tender Mercies”).
Murphy’s performance here is even more disciplined than in “Dreamgirls.” Jackson supposedly had to drop out because of other commitments but I’m not sure I buy that. He usually likes to make more noise in his films than Murphy does here.
His name in the film is Mr. Church (we never learn his first name is Henry until the end). He shows up one morning in the shabby apartment of a single-mother and 10-year-old daughter because he’s been hired to cook for them by the mother’s old boyfriend, who just died. What the daughter doesn’t know is that her mother has breast cancer and has been given only six months to live – hence the dying boyfriend’s gift of his cook to ease her burdens.
The 10-year-old hates the intrusion no matter how good the food looks and smells. But you know, of course, that detente is only minutes of screen time away and that Mr. Church – the soul of calm and mature dignity – has come to stay and be part of the family for as long as needed.
Which, it turns out, is six years when she goes into remission. He makes glorious food for them and becomes, when disease returns, her caretaker in all but bath time which is the daughter’s job (although trauma has temporarily dislodged her capacity for tenderness a bit).
The mother, whose daughter considers her the most beautiful woman in the world, is played by Natascha McElhone, an actress who just might be in the running.
Life goes on for the kid – a senior prom, acceptance into Boston College, dealing with the inevitable.
By now, Mr. Church and his teen dependent have become family whether they ever wanted to or not.
And that brings out adjustments as the years pass and bring surprises and adjustments. Young Britt Robertson is fine as the sensitive and stricken daughter Charlotte, who lives for so long under a cloud of impending doom. But it’s Murphy’s movie – an unpredictable way for him to reaffirm how very good he can be at a gentle volume without adrenaline screaming through his veins.
It aims for tears and gets them. Those inclined to be quizzical about details will note that much is made of who’s rich and poor here but not so much that you ever have a clue how the years go by with Mr. Church apparently needing no income.
Never mind. Good for Murphy. No major year-end awards are threatening from this movie. But it will definitely remind fans why, once upon a time, they were.
Three stars (Out of four)
Title: “Mr. Church”
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone
Director: Bruce Beresford
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for mature themes.
The Lowdown: A man suddenly shows up to cook for a hard-up mother and daughter and becomes family.