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The Preacher's Wife

Review by Carrie Gorringe

Directed by Penny Marshall.

Starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston,
Courtney B. Vance, Gregory Hines, Jennifer Lewis,
Loretta Devine, Justin Pierre Edmund, and Lionel Richie.

Screenplay adapted by Nat Mauldin, Allan Scott,
based upon a screenplay by Robert B. Sherwood.

The Rev. Henry Biggs (Vance) has several big problems, the wheezing boiler in the basement of his church being one of the least. The congregation of St. Matthew’s Baptist Church, based in an unnamed New York locale, is poor in both numbers and money, and growing poorer by the day. Biggs also has to contend with the memory of his predecessor, who just happens to be the late father of his wife, Julia (Houston). Preoccupied with keeping his and the church’s body and soul together, Biggs has been neglectful of his other duties as husband to Julia and father to little Jeremiah (Edmund), resulting in the usual estrangement between husband and wife. Julia’s mother, Marguerite (Lewis) provides a running and tart commentary on the martial state of affairs. Moreover, neither Biggs nor his wife’s family have any ownership of the church grounds. That honor belongs to Joe Hamilton (Hines), a wealthy developer who has forsaken the inner city for the suburbs. Hamilton is going to shut down the decrepit St. Matthew’s. In its place, he wants to provide the area with a new housing development, the focal point of which is a steel-and-glass monstrosity of a temple best suited to the egoism of a television evangelist than to the quietly-dignified Biggs. His wife and mother-in-law are opposed, but the members of St. Matthew’s board have quietly signed on to Hamilton’s plan.

Confused and angry at the betrayals in his life, Biggs pleads for divine guidance and receives it in the form of Dudley (Washington), an angel who has been itching to get back to Earth for some time. Dudley, clad in gray garb which causes him to resemble a slightly-better-clad FBI agent, has trouble convincing Biggs to accept his offer. Reluctantly, and with Dudley working undercover, Biggs allows Dudley to provide assistance. Dudley soon wins everyone over, even Biggs’ secretary, Beverly (Devine), a woman who fears that Dudley has appeared to relieve her of her job. But Biggs soon fears that Dudley has appeared to relieve him of Julia. During the course of the film, Dudley has many opportunities to inadvertently remind Julia of the life she led before becoming Mrs. Biggs, and her daydreams, at first slightly wistful, become a source of tension between the two men, as Biggs seeks to keep Julia from Dudley at the same time that Dudley must stay in touch with Biggs in order to effect those changes from above.

In the 1947 film on which The Preacher’s Wife is based, (known then as The Bishop’s Wife), angel Cary Grant fought with David Niven over edifice complexes (the latter is so obsessed with building a church that he neglects his wife) and, more subtly, the love of a good woman (the wife herself, played by Loretta Young). Obviously, when Sherwood was writing, he was constrained by censorship laws which proscribed not only approval of adulterous relationships, but also prohibited any suggestions that religion in general, and clergy in particular, were less pure than the driven snow. Mauldin and Scott are freer to retain and expand on that latter theme to an extent that seems quite promising; if nothing else, Houston is allowed an opportunity to stretch her acting wings a little more by giving her something to do besides the slow simmer of resentment so characteristic of the neglected-wife role. She (and we) are allowed a glimpse of what this attractive, talented woman could easily have had had she followed the path set out by her friend Britsloe (Richie) and it has an authentic ring to it. Washington provides Dudley with a sexual charm that, even under restraint, provides the film with no little tension; although more tentative in her display, it becomes apparent that Houston is matching Washington quite nicely in the on-screen flirt-for-flirt sweepstakes. The ante is upped so greatly, in fact, that, for one brief moment, there is a genuine doubt as to whether the Biggs’ marriage would have survived the onslaught were Dudley’s time on earth less finite than it is.

Unfortunately, The Preacher’s Wife has a few problems that may make it a less-than-satisfactory work for some audience members. The knowledge that Dudley has a limited time on earth, coupled with some clumsy transitions, tends to drain Dudley and Julia’s relationship, not to mention the narrative, of tension at the halfway point, leaving the film in the position of having to hastily wrap up loose narrative threads in a less-than-satisfactory matter -- if the narrative is still relevant to you at that point, and Ms. Houston’s immense vocal talents haven’t already consumed your attention span (it might be easy to argue that the entire film is nothing more than an extended video for selling its soundtrack, but such accusations are redundant; the same complaints might have been made about any musical film, past or present, since a musical film, after all, is nothing without a carefully-compiled-and-executed soundtrack). A more serious error emerges near the very beginning, and it lies right in one of the film’s most important premises: can the audience really believe that Julia’s voice couldn’t fill up those pews every Sunday? It may be that Rev. Biggs needs divine intervention less than he needs a good PR rep.

There are also the usual difficult issues that arise when one remakes an already-classic film. Can themes and aspirations of late ‘40s vintage be transposed effectively through the barriers of historical context and race in order to make the new version contemporary and relevant enough for modern audiences? On one level, it’s a safe bet that if your idea of a film with African-American characters tends to revolve somewhere around the neighborhood of Boyz N the Hood, then The Preacher’s Wife is most definitely not for you, but, on another, the film does provide one old-fashioned and very valuable reminder for all occupants of a self-indulgent world: compromise, committed willingly and in full awareness of the facts, does not have to equal self-obliteration. Whether or not you like such messages wrapped up in the narrative equivalent of extra-strength candy coating is something for you to decide.

The film’s real strength, however, lies in its casting of Denzel Washington. As stated earlier, Washington follows in his tradition of winning performances. With his exquisitely-executed turn as Dudley, Washington affirms his right to enter that rarefied realm of actors such as Mel Gibson and Harrision Ford who appeal to both men and women alike. The rest of the cast is also fine. Houston seems more relaxed in her third on-screen appearance, although her greatest impact arises from her singing (a state of affairs that is hardly surprising) and in her scenes with young Edmund (her own maternal instincts providing an obvious influence here). Hines and Vance provide more conviction than might be expected to roles that really have a limited scope. Devine, one of Houston’s Waiting to Exhale co-stars, has touching moments as an emotionally-wounded woman who must relearn the art of trusting others. Washington’s real competition, however, is Lewis. Lewis, last seen as the only reason to watch Spike Lee’s muddled Girl 6, puts everyone she appears with in The Preacher’s Wife on notice. Armed with a no-nonsense delivery and great timing, she walks away with scenes without any effort at all. The Preacher’s Wife will probably do the same for many filmgoer’s available cash. It’s a gentle film and, if nothing else, the concept of the problematic made simple is an appealing one in the midst of the panic-stricken holiday season.

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