Mr Church had the means to be a very particular kind of animal in the Hollywood canon. Like Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land or Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, it seemed to send a message to viewers that a former movie star (Eddie Murphy, in this case) known for flashy rather than deep roles was older, wiser, and damn if he wasn’t actually a really good actor after all…
There was a moment of early buzz, one review calling Murphy a ‘revelation’, but it seemed like Mr Church was being dumped on VOD and DVD just as quickly after a raft of terrible reviews, soon to be forgotten. A lot of them complained that it was mawkish and sentimental, but a few griped that depicting a black man in service to a white family had too many connotations about slavery.
The slavery allusions are a bit of a stretch you can dismiss pretty easily, but the extent to which you agree with the former depends on your taste for the material. Most critics scoffed at The Age of Adaline because it was just a love story, but it was handled with emotional aplomb rather that the gilded, Nicholas Sparkes-ian sentimentality a lot of on-screen romance employs, and it worked. Despite being an emotional story, Mr Church does too.
Marie (Natasha McElhone) is a single mother raising precocious Charlie (Natalie Coughlin) in suburban LA in the 1970s. Her married lover has died and left her a provision for a chef to help her, and when Mr Church arrives, Charlie wants nothing to do with him, incensed that this stranger is coming into their house to cook. But the smells and tastes (the visuals of Mr Church doing his work are a rustic, home-style cookbook bought to life) win her over and soon he’s an inextricable part of their lives.
But when Charlie reaches her teens, now played by Britt Robertson Marie has a secret – she’s dying of breast cancer. Charlie goes through a rollercoaster of emotions from grief to fear to non-acceptance and back again, dreading even her regular duty bathing her mother – the one task Mr Church can’t do for her even though he’s now much more than just a cook.
But all the while he’s a constant in Charlie’s life – showing up at the same time, cooking all day, and going home, not saying anything about himself and asking Charlie to respect his privacy no matter how much a part of the family he now is.
It’s a rich story with a lot of elements including the subplot about Charlie’s childhood friend Poppy (Lucy Fry), Charlie having her own baby when she’s barely through college, her attraction to neighbour Owen (Xavier Samuel) and where Mr Church really goes when he leaves at night, often returning to his own home drunk and ranting about a father he apparently hates.
It’s a fair criticism that there are too many strands to the plot, none of them seeming to be the single theme of the story, but instead it seems to be simply about how time does its work and how someone unexpected in your life can become its bedrock as the years go by.
And there along with everything that happens in Charlie’s life – from her mother wanted to survive long enough to see her in her prom dress to having to raise her own baby – is Mr Church, shopping for groceries, preparing culinary creations, smoking quietly, in the background but always there.
Murphy is indeed good, although by virtue of the silent and stoic character he doesn’t have to do very much. But as with Tomorrowland, The Space Between Us and presumably everything else from her little-seen back catalogue, it’s Britt Robertson that will captivate you.
Robertson has a bona fide movie star quality – she’s certainly pretty and she can certainly act, but she’s got an internal luminescence movies of the golden age manufactured around women like Lana Turner and Ava Gardener, and even in a project as low key as this one she lights up the screen.
She’s also one of the unluckiest actresses working. Tomorrowland bombed, this film sunk amid the tepid reception, her next project The Space Between Us has been shunted between release dates and looks in danger of being lost in the crowd and her current release, A Dog’s Purpose, is mired in scandal thanks to a behind the scenes video reportedly showing a stunt dog being mistreated.