Watching Bruce Beresford’s “Mr. Church,” in which Eddie Murphy does a rare dramatic turn as a longtime cook for a Caucasian woman, it’s hard not to be reminded of Beresford’s “Driving Miss Daisy” — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Inspired by “a true friendship,” the film begins in circa 1971 Los Angeles, where 10-year-old Charlotte “Charlie” Brooks (Natalie Coughlin, later Britt Robertson) awakens one morning to find Murphy’s Henry Joseph Church whipping up a jazz-accompanied culinary storm.
When she tells her mom, Marie (Natascha McElhone) that “there’s a black man in the kitchen cooking eggs,” she learns he was hired by Marie’s late former lover, but what Charlie doesn’t know is that her cancer-stricken mom has been given only six months to live.
Turns out the intensely private Mr. Church’s initial tenure goes well beyond the half-year mark, as he serves as a nurturing father figure for Charlie well into adulthood.
What starts off with quirky promise soon falls into a maudlin, blandly predictable rut with a heavy reliance on voice-overs, but those aren’t the film’s biggest issues.
While it’s understandable why Beresford would be drawn to the thematic dynamics of Susan McMartin’s autobiographical script, there’s a significant cultural difference between the Deep South of “Driving Miss Daisy” and ‘70s and ‘80s L.A., yet “Mr. Church” feels as if it’s been painted with the same, uneasily patronizing brush.
Somehow Murphy manages to lift his dignified, all-knowing servant character off the page, giving a meticulously composed performance in a vehicle that can’t help but feel superficially repackaged.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release