When preteen Charlie discovers that her family’s new cook has prepared eggs, steak and grits for breakfast, she’s not impressed. She wanted Apple Jacks, she tells her mother, Marie. The cook, who calls himself only Mr. Church, has never heard of the kiddie cereal. It tastes mostly like sugar, Marie explains.
So does “Mr. Church,” a syrupy if capably made family drama. The movie marks Eddie Murphy’s return to the screen after a four-year absence, playing the kindly yet secretive cook. But the character who’s really making a comeback here is the saintly African American helpmate, exemplified by Morgan Freeman’s part in “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Australian Bruce Beresford, who helmed that 1989 drama, 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 Jim Crow-era South. Until the movie’s final moments, Murphy is the only black performer with any lines.
The story is based on a person from screenwriter Susan McMartin’s life, but the film claims only to be “inspired by a true friendship.” If that means “Mr. Church” is mostly made-up, this is a case where truth is stronger than fiction. The movie makes the stuff of ordinary life reasonably interesting, but its big mystery — the private life Mr. Church hides so zealously — is a bore.
Charlie (Natalie Coughlin) first meets Mr. Church because Marie (Natascha McElhone) is seriously ill. She hasn’t told her daughter, but she did inform her wealthy lover before he died. He bequeaths the cook to the two-person family, with the expectation that Mr. Church will be freed — you could call it manumission — by Marie’s death.
Marie lives much longer than expected, which is good for the movie, since McElhone gives the liveliest and most complex performance. By the time Charlie (now played by Britt Robertson of “Tomorrowland”) and Mr. Church are left alone, Charlie is about to head to Boston for college. Her literary inclinations are the product of Mr. Church’s collection of paperback classics — none of them by African American authors — which he insists on treating as a formal lending library.
Later, about to become a single mother herself, Charlie returns to L.A., and to Mr. Church. There are testy moments, but soon Charlie’s surrogate father is happily serving as surrogate grandfather to Izzy (Mckenna Grace). When roles shift in the final act, the movie’s sweetly placid tone changes not at all.
Murphy is fine as the title character, although his performance consists mostly of suppressing all of his usual shtick. He certainly doesn’t endow Mr. Church with any unexpected depths. But then neither does the script.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains thematic elements, including mortality, alcohol abuse and chain smoking. 105 minutes.