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Murphy’s understated performance drives thoughtful ‘Mr. Church’

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Eddie Murphy as Henry Joseph Church in "Mr. Church."

Eddie Murphy as Henry Joseph Church in “Mr. Church.”

Darren Michaels

“MR. CHURCH” — 3 stars — Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone, Mckenna Grace, Lucy Fry, Xavier Samuel; PG-13 (thematic elements); in general release

There are several things to like about a quiet drama like “Mr. Church.” But the thing that feels most notable about director Bruce Beresford’s story of a young woman and her unique father figure is the presence of Eddie Murphy in the title role.

Anyone who saw Murphy’s Oscar-nominated turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” knows the actor has range. But it’s still a pleasant surprise to see the man who cut his performing teeth as a comedian on "Saturday Night Live" and through 1980s comedies such as “Beverly Hills Cop” emote such a quiet and noble character.

Murphy plays Henry Joseph Church, a multitalented man who earns his living as a cook. Church is assigned to a cancer-stricken woman named Marie (Natascha McElhone) and her young daughter Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin) on a six-month assignment by an interested third-party (Marie’s ex-lover), but when she survives her terminal prognosis, Church’s position lasts several more years.

Over that time, he develops a close relationship with Charlotte (played as a teen and adult by Britt Robertson), teaching her to cook, cultivating her love of literature and becoming something of a father figure as she navigates adolescence and enters adulthood. But even as Church becomes integral to Charlotte’s life, he remains fiercely private about his affairs, though Charlotte knows that his evening activities involve a nearby jazz club called Jelly’s.

The tension created by Church’s mysterious past is the only obvious conflict in “Mr. Church,” which is more character-driven than anything else. Along the way, we also get to know Larson (Christian Madsen) a friend of Charlotte’s who is trying to cope with having killed a 4-year-old boy in an auto accident, and Charlotte’s childhood friend Poppy (Lucy Fry), whose inferiority complex drives her to a glamorous but shallow life of wealth.

The opening credits claim that “Mr. Church” was inspired by a real-life friendship, which might explain part of its organic, laid-back pacing. But while the pacing works, Susan McMartin’s script is often too reliant on Charlotte’s expositional voiceover narration, which frequently restates the very things the film is already showing us.

Set mostly in the 1970s, “Mr. Church” hints early on at the potential for racial tension, but Beresford never really wanders far from the relationship between his two leads. At times his film strains against the confines of its time period, celebrating the art of cooking and Church’s love of music and literature in a way that transcends the culture of the 1970s.

Murphy plays Church as a man of quiet, wise dignity in a performance that becomes more poignant as we realize how he uses that dignity as a mask. Robertson also does well as Charlotte, benefiting from her unique ability to play any age from about 16 to 30 (the actress is 26 in real life).

In spite of some flaws, “Mr. Church” is a valuable exploration of the nature of friendship and how genuine friendship often requires you surrender those things you are reluctant to share.

“Mr. Church” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements; running time: 104 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.