The Preacher's Wife...
Heaven Comes to Houston
The Gospel Truth: Whitney Houston provides a surprising dose of sincerity to
"The Preacher's Wife."
Whitney sings like an angel in 'Preacher's Wife'
By Rob Nelson
FACED WITH some unflattering press over the last year, Whitney Houston
acquits herself capably in The Preacher's Wife. It's an old-fashioned
heart-warmer that literally gives the pop star a stage on which to perform
her hits, while the movie in turn benefits from her newly sincere screen
Director Penny Marshall, the epitome of a mainstream filmmaker, solidifies
this mutually beneficial trade by casting Houston as a gospel singer who
just so happens to rehearse a lot in her spare time. Houston's Julia Biggs,
a Baptist preacher's wife in a midsized northeastern town, begins the movie
by belting out an upbeat church ditty; a few minutes later, she performs a
lullaby for her sleepless young son (Justin Pierre Edmund).
Lest the film be forced to rely on its story alone, Marshall dutifully cues
up another Whitney toe-tapper to fit an ice-skating musical montage; and
when the church's kiddie production suddenly needs an understudy, Julia
grabs the mic without missing a beat. A UCLA film school prof could use The
Preacher's Wife to illustrate how creatively a soundtrack can be peddled in
a studio feature.
As it turns out, the songs also tie in nicely to the formulaic charm of the
film itself. The title aside, this is actually the familiar story of the
preacher's wife's husband, Henry (Courtney B. Vance), a humorless workaholic
who can't escape the saintly shadow of Julia's minister father.
Henry feels personally responsible for the lack of offering-plate money to
restore his church. Forced to ask God for help, he's rewarded with Dudley (Denzel
Washington, suitably dapper), an anachronistically kind angel whose
handshake feels "like springtime and Mom's home cookin' all rolled into
At first, Henry reacts as if to the Cable Guy: Who is this weirdly sociable
stranger? And then the preacher's problem is that this smooth-talking,
problem-solving angel poses yet another threat to his manhood. At least
Henry doesn't feel jealous of his wife's radio-friendly singing voice.
This carefully wrapped holiday package takes its basic plot from The
Bishop's Wife (1947), with David Niven and Loretta Young as the preacher and
his wife, and Cary Grant as the angel. There's probably never been an
imprudent time for Hollywood to make a film about a man's heavenly triumph
over his burdensome duties, but the theme must have resonated strongly in
the post-WWII era, as returning heroes fought to reassert their control on
the home front.
To its credit, the 1996 version aspires to a higher power than the very
dated and stagy original. Specifically, The Preacher's Wife aims to heal us
of extramarital temptation, community apathy and loss of faith. It's a movie
of such clean heart that it even blesses Julia's mother (Jenifer Lewis) with
the miracle of quitting smoking.
Surprisingly, this genuine spirit of optimism elevates The Preacher's Wife
above the status of a cross-promotional godsend. Houston's inevitable
chart-toppers aside, the film mainly sells the values of cooperation and
Still, this Hollywood Preacher isn't above accepting a well-timed corporate
donation. One of the movie's funniest jokes suggests that whoever designed
the startup screen for Microsoft Windows took their inspiration from heaven
The Preacher's Wife (PG; 121 min.), directed by Penny Marshall, written by
Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott, photographed by Miroslav Ondricek and starring
Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance.