"The Preacher's Wife" is one Christmas picture that actually is in the spirit of the season. It's warm, sentimental, amusing yet serious, bringing fantasy to bear upon the painfully real. An inspired reworking of "The Bishop's Wife" (1947), it has that sense of family and community and uplift that make '40s movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" such evergreen treasures--and it also has Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in full dazzle.
"Lord, I'm a little tired. I sure could use some help," says the Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance), pastor of St. Matthews Baptist, a venerable African American church somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. Biggs is faced simultaneously with having to close his church's youth center because of a lack of funds, trying to keep a local teen from going to prison for a crime he did not commit, facing the loss to a distant foster care program of a boy his own small son has come to regard as a brother, and, as a final straw, the bursting of the church's ancient boiler.
Biggs is talking to himself, but he is overheard by God, who immediately dispatches the well-dressed angel Dudley (Washington) to work some miracles. The trouble is Biggs understandably has difficulty believing that Dudley is who he says he is.
In his attempts to help Henry regain his faith and belief that he can make a difference in the lives of his parishioners, Dudley feels that Henry first must realize he's letting his marriage to the beautiful and dutiful Julia (Houston) suffer. In the meantime as Henry struggles manfully with the overwhelming demands placed upon him, Dudley discovers that Julia is the ideal woman who escaped him during his brief earthly existence. Julia, who unlike Dudley is only human, can't help but respond to the attentions of so handsome and courtly a man when her edgy husband has so little time for her.
Washington and Houston, who has plenty of opportunities to sing as leader of St. Matthews' gospel choir, are among the most attractive, charismatic actors on the screen today, and they are terrific here. Yet the film's story is not that of the preacher's wife but the preacher himself, and the film's key figure is in fact Biggs.
In updating Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici's original script, writers Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott have created a decent, stressed-out contemporary husband and father with whom practically everyone can identify. As anyone who saw Vance on stage in his Tony-nominated portrayal of the brilliant impostor in "Six Degrees of Separation" will recall, he is a young actor of extraordinary reserves and concentration. It is a pleasure to watch him, under Penny Marshall's consistently wise and judicious direction, command the screen with such passion and intelligence.
Marshall in turn surrounds her stars with more wonderful people. Among them are a scene-stealing Jenifer Coleman as Julia's canny mother; Loretta Devine as Henry's secretary, who at first fears Dudley has come to replace her; Gregory Hines as an avaricious developer; Lionel Richie (in his film acting debut) as the operator of a local nightclub; and little Justin Pierre Edmund as the Biggses' son.
Atmosphere is crucial in "The Preacher's Wife," and the filmmakers drew from various authentic locations that are at once nostalgic and gritty. The film's actual church and adjoining manse are splendid, spacious turn-of-the-century structures in Yonkers, N.Y., with miles of oak woodwork, paneling and carved detailing. Such buildings exist in older areas of cities across the country--areas where men and women like Henry Biggs do battle daily with the ravages of crime, poverty and drugs and really could use a miracle.
* MPAA rating: PG, for brief mild language. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.
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'The Preacher's Wife'
Denzel Washington: Dudley
Whitney Houston: Julia Biggs
Courtney B. Vance: Henry Biggs
Jenifer Lewis: Marguerite Coleman
A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone presentation of a Samuel Goldwyn Co. production. Director Penny Marshall. Producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Executive producers Robert Greenhut and Elliot Abbott. Screenplay by Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott; based on a screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. Editors Stephen A. Rotter and George Bowers. Costumes Cynthia Flynt. Music Hans Zimmer. Production designer Bill Groom. Art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator George DeTitta. Running time: 2 hours.
* In general release throughout Southern California.