‘Mr. Church’ a Nostalgic Tribute to a Father Figure

To be a girl without a father can set into motion a lifelong search for a male presence, an anchor. I remember the sadness, the anger and alienation I felt with my father was dying and then finally died when I was in junior high school. The movie, “Mr. Church” reminded me of those dark, sad times. “Mr. Church” is about a girl finding a father in a man who began as an employee. The story is based on the experiences of screenwriter Susan McMartin and doubtlessly meant as a tribute to the man who came as a cook and became her friend.

Eddie Murphy is pinch-hitting for Samuel L. Jackson who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. If you’re expecting the broad smile and the blazing charisma that personifies Murphy, you will be disappointed. This isn’t Eddie Murphy being himself. This is a subdued Murphy giving a nuanced portrayal of a modest, private man, an artist who has failed and lost his family but in becoming a cook finds one. It is a touching tribute, but glowingly sentimental movie is not for everyone.

The story is told in voiceover, beginning with Charlotte Marie “Charlie” Brooks saying, “Joseph Henry Church could have been anything he wanted to be. He chose to cook. ‘The key,’ he said, ‘was jazz.'” Mr. Church (Murphy) came one day to cook breakfast.

Charlie’s mother had a lover whom we never see, Richard Cannon, who told her, “I’ll care for you until my dying day and beyond.” While it isn’t stated, Cannon was likely the father of Charlie, but he was also married.

The ten-year-old Charlie is bitterly opposed to this intrusion, insisting that she rather have Apple Jacks. She doesn’t know that her mother is dying, only supposed to live for six months.

Mr. Church’s deal with Cannon is that he will cook for Charlie (Natalie Coughlin) and her mother, Marie Brody (Natascha McElhone) for six months and Mr. Church will have a salary for the rest of his life. He does the shopping and cooking. He brings books and jazz music into the house. Marie, wanting to feel useful, clips coupons to save money.

Charlie is the charity-case girl at a private school and best friends with another charity case, Poppy (Madison Wolfe and later Lucy Fry). Poppy’s parents are criminals, both imprisoned. Poppy is determined to break from her family, even embarrassed that her older sister comes to pick her up after school. Charlie barely has a family and rides the bus each day, making friends with another regular, a man named Larson (Christian Madsen) who was convicted of vehicular homicide and can never drive again.

Charlie’s mother miraculously lives long enough to see Charlie (now Britt Robertson) attend the senior prom with the boy she’s had a crush on since she was ten, Owen Baxter (Lincoln Melcher as the young Owen and Xavier Samuel as the older prom date).Yet by high school, Marie is clearly ill and Mr. Church has clearly become family–Mr. Church and Marie both fuss over choosing Charlie’s prom dress. Now Charlie is responsible for bathing Marie, something that she dreads. Becoming a parent to your mother and acknowledging the nearness of death aren’t an easy thing for a teenager. Both Mr. Church and Marie wait for Charlie to return home. As Owen and Charlie dance to Jefferson Starship’s “With Your Love” at the prom, Marie and Mr. Church dance to jazz on the radio. With the former, there’s the feeling of embarrassed attraction. With the later, there’s a sense of tender friendship.

Soon after, Charlie’s mother dies and Mr. Church cares for Charlie and provides her with savings so that she can attend a college in Boston. Charlie heads off to Boston and Poppy heads off to New York. Mr. Church writes to Charlie every week but in two years (1980), Charlie returns, supposedly on leave from college, but she is pregnant.

Mr. Church takes her in, but with the stipulation that she never snoop into his private life. Living with a person differs from seeing one every day. Mr. Church comes home drunk and Charlie does snoop. In a drunken rage, Mr. Church throws her out, but an accident brings Charlie, Larson and Mr. Church back together and they become a family for the daughter, Izzy.

We’ll never know how the real Mr. Church feels about this movie, if he likes Eddie Murphy’s portrayal or if he thinks this treatment is too saccharine and dependent upon what some critics call the magical negro. In the movie, Mr. Church dies and his wake mirrors the earlier scenes of Marie’s wake.

McMartin has written about reconstituted families before, writing ten episodes of “Two and a Half Men” and 20 episodes for the more recent TV series “Mom,” both shows which she’s also served as a producer. “Two and a Half Men” was about a single father. “Mom” is about a newly sober single mom. According to IMDb, McMartin’s father was actor John McMartin (1929-2016) and her mother was Cynthia Baer. John McMartin and Cynthia Baer were married, but divorced in 1971.

According to a story that McMartin wrote, “The Cook Who Came to Live with Us,” the cook, Herman, was her best friend. He came not at the bequest of McMartin’s father, but rather as a legacy of the wife and family her stepfather left behind. McMartin’s mother and stepfather married, but they had no money and her mother was recovering from cancer. Herman was a tall, handsome, 40-something African American who introduced McMartin to old classic movies with Humphrey Bogart, Grace Kelly and Bette Davis. McMartin was five, not ten when Herman arrived. This might explain some of the soft edges of this story.

McMartin’s mother was not the too nice saint as portrayed in the movie. She, according to McMartin, was an alcoholic. McMartin is, as Charlie, a single mother.

The early reviews I’ve read of “Mr. Church” all mention that director Bruce Beresford was also at the helm of the 1989 Morgan Freeman-Jessica Tandy “Driving Miss Daisy.” That movie began as a stage play and was transferred to the screen by the original playwright, Alfred Uhry and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Writing and Best Makeup. Uhry was born in Atlanta, Georgia (1936). Uhry also has two Tonys and a Pulitzer (for “Driving Miss Daisy”).  Many writers seem to forget that the Miss Daisy of the title wasn’t considered white. She was white and Jewish. The play is part of Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy that deals with Jewish people in Atlanta. “Driving Miss Daisy” covers 1948 to 1973. During this time (12 October 1958), Atlanta’s oldest and most prominent synagogue was bombed and the city has a 1964 dinner honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize. The other two plays also cover significant times for Jews in Atlanta. “Parade” is about the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank. “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” takes place after Hitler has invaded Poland and just before “Gone with the Wind” premieres. “Driving Miss Daisy” is not about a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and her black servant. It is about a white Jewish woman, who exists on the uneasy edge of Southern society, marginalized but not to the same extent as her servant and how they navigate toward becoming family.

One shouldn’t forget that besides directing “Driving Miss Daisy,” Beresford also directed Part 4 of the TV mini-series “Roots” in its updated 2016 version.

There are similarities between “Mr. Church” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” McMartin’s story, “Mr. Church” is about a single mother in the 1960s-1970s whose child is left orphaned and then a single mother in the 1980s. Charlie is an outsider by being an illegitimate child during a time when it was less acceptable. Both “Mr. Church” and “Driving Miss Daisy” are about outsiders and about the friendship that forms. However, Charlie is portrayed as being orphaned and having no family. Mr. Church has been rejected by his. “Mr. Church” is about outcasts of society who help form a family, saving each other.

Would this movie be better or more acceptable in today’s political climate if “Mr. Church” had whitewashed Eddie Murphy’s role? Or if the cast has been all white or all black? Or if Charlie had been a boy? Or if Mr. Church has been Ms. Church? Is this so much different from “Arthur” or Albert’s relationship with Batman?

Thinking of all the people who even temporarily played father or mother to me, I was moved to tears. People do get lost after a loved one dies. The sadness can be debilitating. Aren’t we told we can’t choose our family? Some people can and “Mr. Church” is about one such family, told with a heavy dose of nostalgia and love.

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