American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
One can only speculate why Eddie Murphy would choose to end his four-year hiatus from the big screen with the extremely misguided interracial drama “Mr. Church." If this were an attempt to secure a second Oscar nomination after his well-deserved one for “Dreamgirls,” he’s barking up the right tree. The Academy loves its servile Black people, and “Mr. Church” is directed by Bruce Beresford, who seems to be addicted to this kind of character. After helming this, an episode of "Roots" and Best Picture-winner “Driving Miss Daisy,” Beresford should be forced to join “Subservient Cinematic Negroes Anonymous” and work through their 12-step program. Until then, viewers must yet again contend with a movie where a White character gushes about what Noble Negritude has done for them.
“This is based on a true friendship,” reads the awkward title card at the beginning of the film. That friendship begins when one of the friends is sent to work for the family of the other. Marie (Natascha McElhone) is having an affair with a married man named Richard. When Richard drops dead, his will bequeaths the cooking services of Mr. Church (Murphy) to Marie and her wretched little brat of a daughter, Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). Charlotte wants no part of Mr. Church or his food, going so far as to tell everyone in her school, “We have a new cook and HE’S BLACK!!!”, emphasizing the color for maximum shock value. Nobody gives a damn that Charlotte is throwing tantrums about Mr. Church, least of all Poppy (Madison Wolfe), Charlotte’s only friend, who is more than willing to eat his entrees.
Charlotte gives her mother a hard time about Mr. Church, not knowing that Marie is secretly dying of breast cancer. Mr. Church is tasked to be around until Marie joins Richard in the great, adulterous Beyond. Afterwards, Mr. Church will go on his merry way and Charlotte will probably go to an orphanage. Mr. Church’s stipend from Richard only covers six months of food for his charges, which coincides with the amount of time Marie has left. He is promised a lifetime salary if he does this short-term favor.
However, Marie manages to keep her cancer at bay for over six years before she gives up the ghost. This allows Charlotte to mature into a still-bratty, graduating high school senior played by Britt Robertson. Robertson narrates “Mr. Church” in long, hyperbolic passages that tell rather than show. Her words serve as the only proof of the close bond she has with Mr. Church, making their friendship ring completely hollow. Mr. Church does all the work in this relationship: He puts up with her disrespect when she’s a kid; he pays for her college education AND everything that transpires for the 5-1/2 extra years Marie stays alive; he even takes Charlotte in when she comes back from college pregnant. In return, Charlotte says nice things about Mr. Church on the soundtrack but doesn’t do squat for him on the screen until it’s too late. Watching this one-sided interaction, you almost wish Murphy had taken a page from his comedy concert “Eddie Murphy Raw” and asked Charlotte, “what have you done for me lately?!”