The Preacher's Wife

on December 13, 1996 by Wade Major
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   Other than the decision to change the race of the principal characters from white to black in this Nat Mauldin/Allan Scott script (adapting the work of Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici), there's relatively little in "The Preacher's Wife" to distinguish it from Henry Koster's original 1947 Cary Grant/David Niven favorite "The Bishop's Wife." Much like its forebear, "The Preacher's Wife" is a sweet, sentimental, well-intentioned spoonful of holiday cheer that's pleasant enough as long as one doesn't take too close a look at how little of it really makes any sense.
   Assuming the formidable mantle of Grant, Denzel Washington is aptly charming and lovable as an exuberant angel sent to earth to help a discouraged preacher (Courtney B. Vance in the Niven role) and his beautiful wife (Whitney Houston in the Loretta Young role) salvage their neighborhood church from the wrecking ball of an egomaniac developer (Gregory Hines). Part of the problem with the setup is precisely what has always been part of its appeal, namely the romantic tension that develops between the angel and the wife when the preacher is away tending to his flock at his family's expense. It's never clear why an angel would or could be so easily detoured by such earthbound emotions, nor does it have much to do with anything in general other than to lend the film a "romantic" angle. Equally problematic is the Hines character, whose badly needed neighborhood renovation is dismissed as Scrooge-like, apparently because he isn't a nice enough person to begin with.
   On the plus side, audiences will appreciate this Touchstone effort for its positive portrayals of both religion and black family life--two institutions that have taken more than a fair beating from Hollywood of late. Neither Houston nor Vance is ever less than engaging, while Penny Marshall's direction consistently attains genuine sentiment without the usual melodramatic excess. Fans of Houston's singing, too, will thrill to the singer's return to her gospel roots, belting out at various occasions a complete soundtrack's worth of rousing gospel tunes. Ultimately, criticizing a film like "The Preacher's Wife" seems a little like criticizing a useless Christmas gift. In both cases, it's the thought that counts. Starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Courtney B. Vance and Gregory Hines. Directed by Penny Marshall. Written by Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. A Buena Vista release. Romantic comedy. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 124 min. Opens 12/13 wide
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