Preacher's Wife, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Henry Koster's 1947 release, The Bishop's Wife, earned Academy Award Nominations for both Best Picture and Best Director. Starring Cary Grant as an angel sent to earth to aid a struggling cleric, the film, which combines elements of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, is a typical, feel-good, Christmas offering. It's a lighthearted fantasy that works well enough on its own terms, but, by today's standards, seems rather dated.

Nearly fifty years after The Bishop's Wife first reached theater screens, director Penny Marshall has decided to revamp the story and make a new movie. Using the bare bones plot structure from the original, she and screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott have brought the characters and situations into the nineties, simultaneously transforming an all-white cast into an all-black one. The result is The Preacher's Wife, a surefire seasonal hit (despite the overlong running time). And, with Disney behind the production, you can be sure that the merchandising (most notably the soundtrack) will threaten to dwarf the in-theater experience.

Marshall is probably the ideal film maker to attempt this kind of remake. After all, her directorial trademark is the happy ending. Even her best films (Big and A League of Their Own) have moments of almost-sickening sweetness. The Preacher's Wife milks that quality for all it's worth. Those looking for something truly uplifting will find more than they could possibly want in this movie. Creatively, however, it's on shaky ground. Beneath the warm sentiments and likable personalities, The Preacher's Wife is rather trite.

I think I would probably react the same way if someone produced a passable remake of It's a Wonderful Life. I enjoy that film immensely, but my affinity for it results largely from a nostalgia for the period during which it was made and in which it transpires. A modernized version of Capra's movie would lack that crucial quality, and, consequently, the viewing experience would suffer. Much the same can be said about The Preacher's Wife. It has better production values than its predecessor, but the intangibles aren't the same. An element of the magic is missing.

Courtney B. Vance gives a strong performance as Reverend Henry Biggs, the pastor of St. Matthew's Church in Newark, N.J. When financial difficulties arise, Henry prays for help. God's answer is to send an angel named Dudley (Denzel Washington in his lightest role since Much Ado About Nothing) to Earth to assist him. However, when Dudley approaches the pastor with the truth about his identity, Henry is understandably skeptical. That doesn't stop the angel, whose mission is not only to help St. Matthew's through a rough time, but to restore the preacher's dwindling faith. Complications arise, however, when Henry's wife, Julia (Whitney Houston), develops an attraction for Dudley, who offers her kindness and compassion in place of her husband's abstracted indifference.

Despite having two hit movies behind her (The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale), Whitney Houston is far from an accomplished thespian. In her defense, her acting skills have improved, but she's still out of her depth in the company of performers like Washington and Vance. She does a lot of singing in this movie -- enough, in fact, that it could almost qualify as a musical -- but those are the only scenes when her natural charisma and energy translate to the screen.

Besides Houston, the cast includes two other Waiting to Exhale alumni. The first is Gregory Hines, who plays an upper-class wheeler-dealer type ("he's so oily you could fry chicken on his smile"). The second is Loretta Devine, who sparkles as Henry's hyperactive secretary. The real scene-stealer, however, is Jenifer Lewis as Julia's mother, Marguerite. She's a delightful presence, and her delivery of several biting one-liners almost manages to give The Preacher's Wife the semblance of an edge.

The uplifting moral here is that miracles can happen for those who believe. The Preacher's Wife is about reclaiming lost faith and spreading the message of love. These are themes common to almost every beloved holiday classic. So, as a Christmas film, The Preacher's Wife has all the right sentiments, and presses the expected buttons. On the other hand (call me a Scrooge if you will), I'm not sure I'd want to see this movie at any other time of the year. If not for the pervasive spirit of the season, something like this could easily send me into sugar shock. It's a little too nice and happy.

Preacher's Wife, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-13
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1