The Preacher's Wife
1996, PG, 124 min. Directed by Penny Marshall. Starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Courtney B. Vance.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 13, 1996
When talk turns to remakes of movie classics, it's all too easy to slip into an obsessive compare-and-contrast groove. Luckily for you readers, my memories of a single long-ago viewing of The Bishop's Wife, a 1947 fantasy/comedy starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young, are too vague to permit that kind of tedious clinical exercise. But one distinction stands out even through the screen of years: This remake is a movie that one watches; the original was a movie that one disappeared into. The difference isn't due to any radical story changes. As before, we have a financially strapped church headed by a big-hearted minister named Henry (Vance) who's running himself into the ground trying to salvage a ministry that's the heart of the neighborhood. Henry's prayers for help are answered by the Big Guy himself, who sends an angel with the unlikely name of Dudley (Washington in the Grant role) to help him out. Since Dudley looks and acts mortal -- he loves pizza and has a deep repertoire of Sixties dance moves -- the preacher is understandably skeptical. And since Dudley is also a luscious hunk who develops an obvious (and reciprocated) affection for Henry's wife, Julia (Houston), Henry's feelings about the celestial visitor are tainted by jealousy that pushes his marriage to a crisis. As one might expect from the director of Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own, The Preacher's Wife serves up a palatable blend of sentiment and intelligence, with just enough of the latter to avoid a sickly sweet aftertaste. But unlike Marshall's previous work, there's an odd lack of energy and gusto here that tempts the viewer to slip outside the story and consciously observe actors' technique or wonder how Whitney affords those designer outfits on an inner-city pastor's salary. It's hard to say why this is so. The shift to an African-American social milieu offers a grand opportunity to punch up the score with roof-raising gospel singing (at which Houston excels), so that's obviously not the problem. More likely it's a result of casting that looks good on paper but forces the two leads too far outside their comfort zones. Washington is, of course, the very embodiment of male screen charisma; his slow-creeping smile inspires audible gasps in the audience. Yet for all his game efforts he can't shed his dignified persona enough to function as a truly credible light-comedy guy. Houston is appealing but still registers too many emotions with gestures and facial expressions imported from her singing performances. Finally, there's a sense that everyone is being just a bit too respectful of precedent to transform this film according to their own vision. So even though The Preacher's Wife is far from a waste of time, it begs the question of whether anyone would have felt compelled to do a remake if this had been the original. As with other passable but uninspired remakes such as Sabrina and Love Affair, I'm guessing the answer is no.