Touchstone Pictures // 1996 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 13th, 2012
They needed help. What they got was a miracle.
"You have no idea what the competition is like just to be sent down here."
Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance, The Hunt for Red October) has been going through some tough times lately. His marriage to Julia (Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard) has lost much of its spark, collections at his humble church are down considerably and he struggles to find inspiration for his sermons each week. One day, something miraculous happens: an angel named Dudley (Denzel Washington, Crimson Tide) arrives and announces that he intends to help the good reverend get back on his feet again. However, things quickly take some unexpected turns: Reverend Biggs finds himself more attracted to the suspect schemes of wealthy land developer Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines, The Cotton Club), and Dudley finds himself attracted to Julia. Will the mutual feelings between the angel and the preacher's wife derail Dudley's noble plan?
The Preacher's Wife is a harmless, gentle little movie featuring easily-digestible songs by Whitney Houston and an effortlessly charming performance by Denzel Washington. It's a nice movie to hang out with, and a rare Hollywood experience that views old-fashioned religious faith with affection and warmth. However, there's no escaping the sense that The Preacher's Wife could have been something more if director Penny Marshall were interested in doing more than simply providing a vehicle for Denzel and Whitney to do their thing.
The film's biggest problem is its unwillingness to let Dudley truly shake things up. There's a whole lot of potential in some of the ideas the film flirts with, but flirtation is where things stop (literally and otherwise). Sure, Dudley bats his eyes at Julia and sighs wistfully while looking at her portrait, but everyone knows there's no chance in heaven that the angel will abandon his holy mission and become a homewrecker. It's unfair to expect a movie like The Preacher's Wife (based on the 1949 film The Bishop's Wife, which featured Cary Grant as Dudley, Loretta Young as Julia and David Niven as Henry) to reach for the philosophical heights of Wings of Desire, but a little more dramatic tension would have been nice.
Instead, what we have is a movie filled with to the brim with cutesy winks. In one scene, Dudley finds himself fantasizing about Julia. He spots a wedding picture, magically removes Henry from it and replaces the preacher with an image of himself. Suddenly, he looks up in alarm. "Okay, okay," he sheepishly tells God. He quickly restores the image to its original state. Then he looks over at a Christmas tree and brightens up at the notion of putting the star on top. He glances upward again. "Can I? Thank you!" It's that sort of movie, and it wouldn't work at all without someone as appealing as Washington in the role. It definitely doesn't challenge him too much (Washington's charm is so much more memorable when tethered to a more complicated character), but he's still fun to watch.
Less interesting is the material involving the preacher, who seems underwritten. Either the screenplay is lacking or Vance just can't sell it, but Henry's sudden transformation from "good-hearted, longsuffering man of God" to "money-loving, power-hungry egomaniac" is entirely unconvincing. Of course Henry eventually comes back to his senses, but we never see the stars in his eyes or believe that he would have strayed from the straight and narrow path in the first place. Vance is solid as a decent family man, but he seems uncomfortable and poorly-cast when he's pushed outside of that role (imagine how well Laurence Fishburne might have handled this material).
"So the movie is called The Preacher's Wife -- what about her?" you may ask. Good question. Though Whitney Houston has a pretty large amount of screen time, for much of the film she's playing second fiddle to whichever co-star she happens to be joined by at the moment. She's adequate in the role, but it's clear that she was cast for her contributions to the soundtrack (and her ability to draw people to the box office) rather than for her talents as a dramatic actress. She's actually at her best during an extended scene she shares with fellow musician Lionel Richie, who has a grand time as a scuzzy former flame who lures Houston into taking a break from gospel numbers and crooning a sultry nightclub tune. Still, one can hardly say that she's the film's central character. Whether the screenplay or Washington's performance is responsible (probably a combination of the two), the movie is all about Dudley and his mission.
The Preacher's Wife (Blu-ray) has received a sturdy 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The image is hardly jaw-dropping, but it's clean throughout and detail is satisfactory. There's a somewhat heavy layer of grain present throughout, but at least it's consistent. Nighttime scenes suffer from black crush and a general sense of murkiness on occasion, but daytime scenes are bright and vibrant. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is pretty strong during the big soundtrack numbers (though Whitney Houston's songs get a richer mix than Hans Zimmer's Oscar-nominated score), but merely functional for the rest of the film. The sound design is unfussy and simple, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Sadly, the only supplements on the disc are a vintage featurette (5 minutes) and a theatrical trailer. Some sort of tribute to Houston in the wake of her passing might have been appreciated, at least.
The Preacher's Wife isn't the movie I'd like it to be -- and sometimes it isn't even the movie it would like to be -- but it's a reasonably pleasant way to pass a couple of hours.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG