Say this for "The Preacher's Wife": It gives you that old time religion, without irony or doubt. It's like a man in a pulpit imploring you to give your life to Jesus. It's a $35 million fish bumper sticker.
Those not so oriented are best advised to stay away; they'll be irritated by the faith of the true believers and the treacle dripping from the Christmas trees. A shame, because they'll miss something powerful and real, which has less to do with God than man: Courtney Vance's performance as an inner-city minister who's lost his faith in himself and therefore his faith in Himself.
The faces surrounding him are less interesting and far less moving, but much more attractive. One belongs to Denzel Washington, whose smile is so blindingly beautiful it seems a religious miracle itself. But as a good-hearted angel, sent to Earth to save Vance's Rev. Henry Biggs from his doubts, he's not really acting so much as gliding. He just drifts through the part, knowing how adorable he is and not worrying about much.
The other big face belongs to Whitney Houston and it, too, is as beautiful as a miracle. But in this film, it's curiously passive; she's gliding, too, and almost resembles the great beauty Loretta Young, whose cheekbones and hairstyle played the role in its original 1947 version.
In fact, Houston's face only really lights up when she turns to gospel and then it lights up all the way: She feels the spirit as a real thing, not a musical technique, and you feel the love of God much more powerfully than any dramatic value in the resolutely undramatic and mild film.
Directed by Penny Marshall as if $100 were subtracted from her salary for each letter of complaint Touchstone receives, the movie has been milled into something so smooth and inoffensive it hardly exists. It's one of those heavenly fantasies that follows (like its great predecessor "It's a Wonderful Life") a slightly wayward angel in his adventures on Earth, during which, of course, nothing quite works out as planned.
Sent to a small crumbling inner city (equal parts Jersey City, N.J., Yonkers, N.Y., and Portland, Maine), Washington's pleasant Dudley is immediately concerned with the Baptist minister of St. Matthew's and his failing church and his failing marriage. Despite the bodacious gospel stylings of his beautiful, big-voiced wife Julia, the Reverend's sermons are so boring and his leadership is so bland that nobody sits in the pews (hard to believe, given Houston's pizazz).
So the angel sets out to right things, complicated by one minor problem: Julia (Houston) is so beautiful he immediately falls in love with her, in total cross-purpose to his assignment. Are these two going to end up in the hay? Folks, look at that rating: PG! Now what do you think?
What continually undercuts "The Preacher's Wife" as drama is its infernal niceness. The movie is so cheerful and upbeat you know from the start that its conflicts will be bland and their resolution unexceptional. There's no possibility of darkness anywhere, except in Vance's terrific and human performance as Henry. Indeed, he's the only human thing in the film.
Henry, overwhelmed by his father's charisma and haunted by his own ineffectiveness, gives vent to a full range of emotion and confronts the possibility of failure and disgrace. He's a George Bailey for our times.
Alas, the movie is no "It's a Wonderful Life," even though that is its message. But it lacks the skill, the cleverness and the intensity of Frank Capra's great film. It has almost no good angel business at all. Dudley "cures" his ward not by conjuring a dark alternate universe but with a little man-to-man chat. But fortunately Vance has the power to make a transformation in spirit and hope that's quite believable and quite moving.
As for Houston, she basically navigates on autopilot, serenely confident as the campus beauty queen, while the mere mortals, and angels, scuffle about at her feet. Once or twice -- you have to look quickly -- she actually deigns to notice them, but clearly she decided not to make a habit of it.
'The Preacher's Wife'
Starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston
Directed by Penny Marshall
Released by Touchstone
Sun score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 12/13/96