A life lived in service is seen as disgrace,
For service is wholly ignoble and lowly,
A shame to escape and oppose.
For so many saints, though, this wasn’t the case;
To serve was a method to mimic the Holy,
A sacrifice God only knows.
A life lived in service is never a waste;
A volunteer’s spirit’s congratulatory,
And oh, that all servants could know!
Such angels of earth are not easily replaced,
For not all bear burdens as badges of glory
And not all saints lived long ago.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for limited profanity)
Mr. Church has been in my Netflix queue for so long that I was considering making it one of next year’s Blindspots just to finally get myself to watch it. The film was written by Susan McMartin, who based it off her own short story “The Cook Who Came To Live With Us,” drawing from her own life. I was curious to see a rare serious role for Eddie Murphy after four years of inactivity, and lo and behold, it turned out to be one of his best films, though you wouldn’t know it based on critical reviews or its scathing box office (less than a million dollars on an $8 million budget).
Murphy plays the titular mister, a cook in 1965 assigned to single mother Marie Brooks (Natascha McElhone) by the dying wish of his employer/Marie’s former lover. Tasked with caring for Marie through her treatment for breast cancer, he expects to only stay for six months, much to the chagrin of her daughter Charlie (played by Natalie Coughlin, and later by Britt Robertson), but, as Marie outlives her diagnosis, Mr. Church becomes a mainstay of the home and their family.
There’s something about this kind of movie that just gets me, an irresistible sweetness that stays in my heart when the credits roll. Mr. Church’s presence spans decades as Charlie grows from a callow girl to a young woman with a daughter of her own, and he imparts to her things that are near and dear to my own heart: a love of cooking, classic literature, music. And like Forrest Gump, Charlie’s poetic narration fits perfectly with this kind of nostalgic, generational story.
Robertson and McElhone excel in their emotional roles, but the surprise is a much-subdued Murphy, who instills Church with evident depth at arm’s length, making Charlie and the audience want to know more about him even as he self-effacingly insists on retaining his privacy. Critics have complained that, despite the film bearing his name, he is too much of a one-note character, there merely to serve his white “family,” and while that argument might have some merit, I fear they miss the point. It may not check the “woke” boxes of what critics expect in a black character these days, but that shouldn’t detract from the sweetness of the relationship forged between Charlie and Mr. Church, one of shared interests and quiet service, which becomes mutual over time.
Professional reviewers may decry it as sappy and sentimental, but Mr. Church deserves so much better than a 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. Many compared it to a Hallmark movie, but that shouldn’t be an insult by default, since such films can be deeply affecting when done well. I was disappointed that Mr. Church was such a box-office failure, since that likely makes Hollywood less likely to make these kinds of movies. If they’re as poignant as this one, I wish they’d make more.
Best line: (Charlie) “People act strange around death. There are those who talk about everything but the person who died. Those who talk about only the person who died. Those who try to cheer you up. And those who can’t help but make you cry. And then there are those who say nothing at all, because they don’t have to.”
© 2019 S.G. Liput
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