The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

Before I get to this year’s Christmas Day review let me wish each and every one of you dear readers a Merry Christmas (or whatever you choose to celebrate today) and a Happy New Year!

Christmas 2014 concludes with another holiday movie remake. Penny Marshall’s Old Hollywood roots run deep, at least in terms of being in a landmark classic television show (Laverne & Shirley) and directing a 1940s-era comedy that remains hilarious to this day (A League of Their Own). And A League of Their Own’s follow-up was a period piece…in name only, a remake of 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife. The Preacher’s Wife may take the basic structure of the film, and certainly brings in a man just as charismatic as Cary Grant was, but the patchy script tries too hard to comment on too many unsolvable questions – or at least unsolvable in two hours – regarding the African American community. Boy, I couldn’t have picked a timelier film could I?

Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) suffers a crisis of faith as his church and community are struggling. He praises to the Lord for help, which comes in the form of a fledgling angel named Dudley (Denzel Washington). Dudley vows to help Henry, but he ends up slowly falling in love with Henry’s neglected wife Julia (Whitney Houston).

Washington was an integral part of this getting made, since his production company was involved, and he struggled to make this a success. Maybe the classic movie gods weren’t too happy about The Bishop’s Wife being remade because Marshall’s production was plagued with problems: temperamental weather, robberies, a few deaths (yes, people died during the making of this), and a leading lady suffering from drug problems. Okay, so there’s the makings of a real old Hollywood story here.

My review of The Bishop’s Wife is here if you want to read the premise and compare, but the core plot of a man of faith asking for help from God and being given an angel to help him remains intact here. But much like Miracle on 34th Street – released two years before – the script ladles on way too many subplots, exhausting not just Henry, but the audience as well. Henry wants to save his church which is set to be bought up by a local land baron played by Gregory Hines, but it also needs a new boiler; Henry’s son, Jeremiah (Justin Pierre Edmund) loses his best friend to Social Services and wants him back; Julia feels neglected; a young boy is framed for a robbery. All of these plots compete for space and it’s easy to see, based on the length of my sentences, which ones receive the most attention, and that’s because this never feels like Henry’s story.

The original may have focused on Loretta Young’s Julia, but there was never a question that Dudley was there to help David Niven’s character find his faith and fix his homelife. Henry spends so much time away, time we really never spend with him, that it’s hard feeling like he’s put in any effort nor that he deserves his family’s love by the end. Houston and Washington’s glamour and A-list stardom doesn’t help matters either. No disrespect to Courtney B. Vance, who plays Henry as frustrated but never resentful, but Marshall’s camera loves Washington and Houston too much. And who wouldn’t, as they match each other, megawatt smile for smile, even if it keeps the audience from believing Julia would be content to go back to Henry after meeting Dudley. Henry doesn’t even get to narrate his story, an easy device to give the audience an anchor, instead piping in sentimentality by having the voice of innocence, Jeremiah, tell the tale in a throwback to Christmas miracle stories of the old days.

The overabundance of serious subplots also dampen the impact of what, in 1947, was a lightweight comedy about faith and trust. By uprooting the story and injecting a serious racial component, Marshall and crew are unable to balance the frivolity with the reality. Case in point, Billy Eldridge (William James Stiggers Jr.) and his arrest based on mistaken identity. The movie situates it as the film’s linchpin – the audience on the edge of their seats wondering if he’ll go to jail or not – but because the script can’t bring any satisfying catharsis with everything else it has to cope with, it slaps on a last minute “he’s free” at the end without any true discussion of racial stereotyping that the movie knows it brings up by having it there in the first place. Other simpler issues affecting the community, simpler being a relative term, like Jeremiah’s friend Hakim (Darvel Davis Jr.) being sent to foster care have some resolution in the end, if only to give Jeremiah, much like Susan in Miracle on 34th Street, that brother he wanted for Christmas.

So the plot is jam packed and our protagonist is weak, but there’s a reason why Denzel Washington is the star; he’s perfect as Dudley. Again, much like no one other than Richard Attenborough playing Santa in Miracle on 34th Street, no one but Denzel Washington could have played Dudley. Some say George Clooney is the Cary Grant of our era, but they forget 1990s Denzel Washington. His Dudley is a bit too flirtatious, but he erases any flaws with his charisma, his charm, and his overall likability. It’s impossible to hate his character for an instant, even when he’s at risk of breaking up a marriage. The script emphasizes Dudley’s past mortality, compared to the allusion that Grant’s Dudley was always an angel; so while Dudley’s allusions to a painful death – another connection to racial strife? – and looking like Julia’s father don’t yield any discussion other than a mere mention, the audience understands his desire for a family and his understanding of human emotions. He’s got some beautiful sequences opposite young Edmund, and some great romantic moments with Houston. Yet Dudley always retains that child-like wonder about the world, seen in such moments as when he first falls to Earth, goes out dancing with Julia, or has his one-side conversations with God (the latter lets Washington use some great facial acting).

That leaves us with Whitney Houston, the other top-billed name in the cast (again, you’d be hard-pressed remembering this is Courtney B. Vance’s story). Houston was a double threat by this point with an incredibly successful musical career and a continuing rise up the Hollywood ladder. Unfortunately during this movie, as she admitted to Oprah Winfrey in 2009, she felt completely distant from the role. A large part of that distance came from her struggles with marijuana and cocaine, but another part was her inability to connect with a “dowdy housewife.” (She also said she would have never been attracted to Vance’s character). All of this explains why Houston seems in a fog. She also has some darling moments with the boy playing her son and with Washington, but for the most part she says every line like the sky is falling. She’s decent in the serious sequences, but the lighter moments of domesticity seem foreign to her – and according to her, they were. The movie also, in a bid to up sales of the soundtrack, forces a barrage of Houston songs. Her voice is legendary, of that there’s no question, but when the plot threads leave a space for her to be the Virgin Mary in a children’s Nativity play so she can sing a song, the movie isn’t doing itself a service.

The Preacher’s Wife is a far cry from the superior The Bishop’s Wife, but I can’t not recommend it. Denzel Washington is wonderful, and there are some great moments and callbacks to the earlier film (oddly enough, a scene of Julia’s mother watching an old movie has her watching the original Miracle on 34th Street…considering both are Samuel Goldwyn Productions could Disney not get the rights?). There is an overabundance of serious stories that can’t be tackled in the film, but at least the movie attempts to explore a rather cut and dry story from a different angle.

Ronnie Rating:

2Ronnis

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One thought on “The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

  1. Pingback: The 20 Worst Classic Films of 2014 |

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