Eddie Murphy has defined himself by his innate laziness for so long—decades now—that any faint whiff of ambition he exudes has become cause for celebration. Murphy has squandered his immense talent on cut-rate comedies and kid movies almost without reprieve for about twenty years now, leaving that electric performer from the ‘80s a dim memory. After his last misfire, 2012’s woebegone bomb A Thousand Words, Murphy entered into a long hiatus from acting. The hope then became that he would eventually reemerge as the Eddie Murphy of old, reinvested and committed in ways that have eluded him for so long, his tenure sleepwalking through paycheck movies at a close.
What Murphy came back with is Mr. Church, a low-key drama. Drama is fine. While Murphy being funny again is the ultimate goal, seeing him making any kind of effort is laudable, and it isn’t as though he has nothing to offer in a dramatic role (see Dreamgirls). Yet in spite of it clearly being a noncommercial prestige bid, Mr. Church is a wet Kleenex of a movie, soggy and in a state of rapid disintegration. For whatever artistic aims the film set out with, what’s left is something the Hallmark Channel might air on a desolate Monday afternoon.
The Movie - 2.5/5
Charlotte "Charlie" Brooks (Britt Robertson; Natalie Coughlin in the earlier scenes) is a young woman living with her radiant single mother Marie (Natascha McElhone). Marie has cancer, a secret she shields from Charlie, and has an estimated six months to live. Marie’s recently deceased lover has decreed posthumously to pay for Marie’s medical care throughout her remaining days, but more than that, he has also taken the liberty of hiring a personal chef for the Brooks ladies, the kindly Mr. Church (Murphy), who shows up promptly each morning to prepare a gourmet breakfast and leaves in the evening after serving an immaculate dinner. Charlie is initially distrustful of this stranger’s presence in her home, but gradually warms to him, helped along by Mr. Church providing her access to his personal library of books.
Marie winds up taking a turn for the better and survives for six years, with Mr. Church keeping to his duties all that time while Charlie grows into her burgeoning womanhood. The three of them have formed into something of a family unit, with Mr. Church filling the fatherly role that Charlie has never known. When Marie does finally succumb to her illness, Mr. Church continues to look after Charlie, even bestowing unto her the money needed for her college tuition, using cash he’s saved over the years from Marie’s grocery coupons. While Mr. Church has a clear affinity for Charlie, he always keeps her at arm’s length, refusing to divulge anything about his personal life after hours. When Charlie leaves college after becoming pregnant, she shows up on Mr. Church’s doorstep asking for a place to stay. He agrees, on the condition that she continue not to pry into any of his affairs.
This isn’t the worst setup for a character drama, but an inertia infects Mr. Church from start to finish, one that doesn’t suggest that Murphy has come back swinging. He makes Mr. Church a soft-spoken dispenser of wisdom, unwavering in his fundamental decency. This is Eddie Murphy stepping into Morgan Freeman territory, and it doesn’t quite suit him. Worse still, the film veers a bit too close to the “magical negro” stereotype, with Mr. Church portrayed as a saintly vessel intended only to shape the white protagonist. Even hints of a clandestine personal life and troubled past don’t fill in the gaps that might make Mr. Church feel like a human being rather than Charlie’s shepherd.
The Video - 4/5 Lionsgate presents Mr. Church with a solid MPEG-4/AVC transfer. The film was shot using the now-standard Arri Alexa cameras, and the result gives off a professional and highly-detailed picture. And yet there isn't a lot of pop here, even when the drama goes outdoors. There is a warm sheen to Church, so it always looks a tad under gorgeous. Human features like details in hair, skin, and clothing are good (but not great). There aren't a lot of opportunities for darks and shadows to play, ad where they do be careful for a ton of noise. I can concur with other reviews that the scene around 18:00 is particularly problematic. The Audio - 4/5 Mr. Church plays through a nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that's bolstered by moments of jazz music - a favorite of the lead character. But there's little else here to demonstrate the track's power or beauty, relying on clear dialogue in the center but only decent surrounds. The LFE never gets much to do, settle for an odd bump or thump here or there. It's good but unimpressive, doing its job without have much to do. The Supplements - 1.5/5 The worst portion of this release gives us barely enough supplements to notice. At least all of them are presented in HD:
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