It’s been nearly 30 years since the timid and well-meaning race relations movie “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Oscar for Best Picture when Spike Lee‘s confrontational classic “Do The Right Thing” didn’t even get a nomination. And now “Daisy” director Bruce Beresford is back with a remarkably similar story: “Mr. Church,” in which the formerly fast and dangerous Eddie Murphy has been given the Morgan Freeman role of a cautious man who seems to live only to serve and help white people.
Surely we should be past this sort of narrative by now, but “Mr. Church” has some strengths and some intriguing staging and performing choices to recommend it at first. Murphy’s Mr. Church is a sort of mysterious Renaissance man who one day shows up to be the cook for single mother Marie (Natascha McElhone) and her defensive young daughter, Charlotte (played in the early scenes by Natalie Coughlin).
One of Marie’s lovers died and has left Mr. Church as a kind of gift for her, a situation that has uncomfortable overtones that Beresford tries to brush over with some distant framing and low angles as Church works his wonders in the kitchen.
Marie is dying of breast cancer and has been told that she has only six months to live, and Mr. Church had been told by his former employer about her illness and her prognosis. The first part of the movie is set in 1971 in Los Angeles, but it soon leaps forward to 1977. We find out that Marie has successfully battled her disease all this time with the steady and discreet help of Mr. Church, who gives young Charlotte books to read. When Charlotte is a teenager (and played by Britt Robertson), she naturally wants to find out some information about how Mr. Church spends his off hours, but he guards his privacy in a way that suggests that he must have some Big Secret.
In his first scenes with McElhone, Murphy seems to have been deliberately de-sexualized in a way that feels puzzling at first. But while Charlotte is driving, she sees Mr. Church going into a club called Jelly’s Place, and in voiceover she says she has heard “rumors” about this establishment.
Mr. Church is fastidious and he doesn’t appear to have a girlfriend. He shows no romantic interest in Marie at all and he says “my dear” all the time like an old British queen. So it feels like we are working to reach a point where Mr. Church is revealed as gay, but this movie doesn’t work like that. The weirdness of “Mr. Church” is that it seems to have been made in the 1950s, when a character could be gay by discreet inference only.
The college-age Charlotte eventually moves in with Mr. Church when she gets pregnant, and still she is unable to get anything out of him about his personal life except for the times when he comes back to his house and leaves a matchbook that reads “Jelly’s Place” on the cover.
In the two scenes where Mr. Church stumbles home drunk and angry to swear at the memory of his abusive father and quote Bible verses, Murphy’s performance suddenly comes to life, but these are all-too-brief glimpses of Mr. Church’s inner life. In all the other scenes, which soon become irritatingly coy, Murphy underplays while making a little face as if he has just smelled something bad. It’s as if he senses that this project is hopeless and even offensively old-fashioned, but he goes through the motions of the script anyway.
There comes a point toward the end of “Mr. Church” where we finally think that the title character is going to fess up about his personal life, but all he does is mention that he was once married to a woman because his father forced him into it, and that the marriage was brief.
As the Mr. Church character drifts away from us, we are supposed to be interested in Charlotte, and her thoughts, and the thoughts of several expendable tangential characters until we finally learn what Mr. Church has been doing all those years at Jelly’s Place. (Spoiler alert!) He has been…playing the piano. Yes, that’s the secret we wait all through this movie to discover. “Mr. Church” is enough to make Spike Lee quietly fume and everyone else roll their eyes at yet another picture with a black lead character who is only seen through his service to white employers.