By Tony Crescio
“Henry Joseph Church could’ve been anything he wanted to be, he chose to cook, the key he said, jazz.” These are the opening lines of the 2016 film, “Mr. Church,” starring Eddie Murphy as the title character. Mr. Church drops into the lives of Charlotte (Britt Robertson) and Marie Brooks (Natascha McElhone) seemingly out of nowhere. This choice, Charlotte (Charlie) speaks of as narrator of the film, has just as much to do with Mr. Church’s realization of what it means to be human as it does that is something he enjoys doing. As we come to find out, Mr. Church has been instructed by his employer Richard Cannon (whom we never see on screen), Marie’s former lover, to feed and care for Charlotte and Marie until the day Marie dies; a work which he is promised a lifetime salary in return for. This, as it turns out, is not expected to be too long, for Marie has breast cancer and has been given six months to live by her doctors. And so we are left with the impression that Mr. Church has ulterior material motives for his kindness; an impression which we are forced to contemplate the possibility of several time over the course of the film, especially when Mr. Church is quite harsh in response to Charlie’s questions about the part of his life she does not see after he leaves the house for the night. Is Mr. Church really loving, or is he just in this for himself?
When Mr. Church comes to help Marie and Charlie, they are facing other problems aside from Marie’s failing health. They are very poor and have little way to pay for the everyday necessities of life, let alone Marie’s expensive health care bills. We come to find that Richard has also armed Mr. Church with the funds needed to feed Marie and Charlie and cover Marie’s health care bills for six months. But Mr. Church has far more to offer Marie and Charlie than just six months worth of meals and financial protection. For not only can Mr. Church cook, but he is phenomenal at it. Every day is a new gourmet experience for Marie and the young Charlotte. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are occasions for Marie and Charlie to be filled with the most delicious and aesthetically pleasing culinary creations. Moreover, Mr. Church has in mind to feed the mother and daughter with more than food. He quickly stocks the Brooks’ empty shelves with the greatest books the world of literature has to offer, which Charlie and Marie are able to check out whenever they please. However, despite the best efforts of Mr. Church, Charlie is slow taking a liking to him. She acts as though she doesn’t like the food and tells Mr. Church he can “keep his stupid books.” Yet, in spite of Charlie’s cold shoulder treatment, Mr. Church continues to use his talents to the utmost in giving the best of himself to mother and daughter.
We are slowly clued in to the fact that Mr. Church isn’t simply out for financial gain when we see him do all he can to win over Charlie. For instance when she seems not to like the food, he amps up his game and makes even more spectacular meals, and when she acts as though she wants nothing to do with his books, he is undaunted, extends the kind gesture of giving Charlie a “library card” and patiently waits for her to respond positively. Little by little, the warmth of Mr. Church’s love wins her over, and soon Charlie is openly enjoying her meals and reading everything from The Three Musketeers to The Old Man and the Sea to The Count of Monte Cristo, a literary experience which will have a lasting impact on her as she will later go onto college with a scholarship to study literature.
Weeks turn into months and months turn into years, and Marie hangs onto life. But as Charlie grows, Marie’s illness becomes more obvious, and as she fades, Charlie begins to ignore her mother in an attempt to become detached before she really passes on. As she says, her mother had been the sun in her life, but as she began to fade, she learned to turn from the sun towards the moon, Mr. Church, becoming more attached to him with every passing year. As her senior prom approaches Charlie is asked to the dance by a boy whom she has had a crush on since she was a young girl. And, when she says yes, prompting the need for preparations in the form of getting a dress, it is an opportunity for Marie to become reinvigorated and for Mr. Church to show us yet another talent as he sews Charlie her dress. Marie passes soon after Charlie’s night at the prom, moving the elegant and ever composed Mr. Church to tears, indicating the love he had for her. Mr. Church stays with Charlie until she heads off to college, however, despite spending so much time together, every night when Mr. Church leaves for home, he disappears into the darkness, and when Charlie asks where he goes, he very forcefully responds that she has him all day, and that she needs to give him his privacy in at least this one aspect of his life.
When Charlie heads off to college, she and Mr. Church correspond via letter for a while but finally lose touch and Charlie gets caught up in the party scene. After a few years, Charlie shows up on Mr. Church’s doorstep, pregnant and in need of a place to rest. Mr. Church welcomes her into his home, and history seems to repeat itself. Mr. Church sews dresses for Charlie’s daughter, Izzy, and takes care of the two women, providing for their financial needs and cooking for them. But as time goes by, we find out that Mr. Church’s hidden life is a tortured one. When he leaves for the night, he often goes to a jazz club where he plays the piano, gets drunk and comes home stumbling, cursing the father that once disowned him. Mr. Church is a broken man, and yet in spite of this, he gives Charlie everything he has, his time, his money, and his talent. We even come to find out that after Richard’s six month allowance had run out, Mr. Church was the one who had paid Marie’s medical bills in addition to their regular expenses.
At the end of the film, Mr. Church’s health fades, and for the first time, it is Charlie’s turn to take care of him, providing for him the same ways he had once provided for her, working to pay the bills and cooking just the way she had seen him do. Charlie tells us that as time went on, she began to realize that all the talents Mr. Church had, and they were many; from playing the piano to sewing; from painting to dancing; and from a man of literature to a master chef; had been learned while taking care of others. Yet for all Mr. Church had shared with Charlie, she still felt as though she really didn’t know him; sneaking into his room at one point to try and learn of his “hidden life.” Before he passes, the wise Mr. Church writes a note to Charlie and places it in a box marked with her name, knowing that she will go searching once again for “the real Mr. Church.” The note Charlie unfolds reads “Dear Charlotte, you’ve said you just want to know me. My dear, you always have, I’m simply a man, not without faults. That can happen when you’re not the son you’re father hoped you’d be despite his verbal abuse and beatings. I know you think I took care of you and your mother and Izzy and you gave me nothing in return. You gave me the most important thing life can offer; you gave me a family and love. Henry.”
As the film ends, Charlie awakes to the sound of jazz playing in the kitchen; the same sound she awoke to so many mornings as Mr. Church made breakfast. But as Charlotte walks into the kitchen she finds her daughter, Izzy, cooking to jazz. Charlotte then tells us, that while it seemed that the legacy of the Brooks family was having children out of wedlock, but in reality, it was Mr. Church.
Mr. Church’s legacy is one of self-giving love. As he indicates in his note to Charlie, he understood that our truest selves are revealed in the loving relationships we have with one another. This is something that the Church spoke of in the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et spes when it wrote that because we are created in the image and likeness of a God who is a communion of Divine Persons, we can only find our truest selves in complete and sincere gifts of self (24). Thus, the quality of our relationships is determined by our ability to exist in those relationships in such a fashion. We see this work out both positively and negatively in the film. Mr. Church is a prime example of this in the film; we see him come fully alive as he takes care of Marie, Charlie, and Izzy, displaying talents and gifts that other people who thought they knew him (e.g. Mr. Twiggs, the owner of Jelly’s bar) never realized he had. He had given himself fully to Marie and Charlie, and in that gift of self his true self shown magnificently. On the other hand, when Charlie quits giving of herself to her mother, we can almost see her character shrivel up and die on the screen, and it is only when she gives herself to her mother’s difficult situation that she comes back to life, so to speak, capped off by her experience at the prom where she dances all night long. We see similar patterns in side characters such as Poppy, Charlie’s friend who seems interested only in what kind of material wealth she can get out of life; her selfishness obtaining for her much in the way of wealth but leaving two broken marriages in her wake of greed. The polar opposite of Poppy is Larson, a local man who had killed a child in a drunken driving accident and is headed down a reckless path to self destruction but gets a new lease on life when he risks himself to save a pregnant Charlie and her unborn child.
The relational dynamics on display in Mr. Church have much to tell us about who we are as individuals created in the image and likeness of God and for this reason is well worth a look. The film lets us know in no uncertain terms that it is only in relationships of mutual self-giving love that human persons flourish to their full potential; however, it does not paint some rosy picture of such a lifestyle but instead shows us the difficulty of loving in such a way in an imperfect world full of fallen human beings. Moreover, in the dynamics between Charlie and Mr. Church, we see that love cannot be grasped at, for the moment you try to wrap your hand around it to make it your possession, it evaporates into thin air like a cluster of bubbles. Instead, love is always a gift and the moment it loses such quality it ceases to be love and thus, it cannot be taken possession of by wrapping closed hands around it, but can only be received with palms open ready to accept its offering. And as Mr. Church shows us, if we are patient and long-suffering enough to wait for a sincere response of love, it is truly a thing of beauty. It is this and this alone that makes human life truly beautiful, for the capacity to love allows us to make true Beauty present to the world because the more we love the more the God who created us in love and who is love itself is made known.
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.