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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 12/12/1996, B: Rob Nelson,

Gospel truth

Whitney's capable as The Preacher's Wife

by Rob Nelson

THE PREACHER'S WIFE. Directed by Penny Marshall. Written by Nat Mauldin and Alan Scott. With Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington, Courtney B. Vance, Gregory Hines, Jenifer Lewis, and Justin Pierre Edmund. A Touchstone Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Company release. At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

Waiting To Exhale and The Bodyguard, both $100 million grossers with huge soundtrack tie-ins, earned Whitney Houston a spot on Premiere's latest cover, but the subtext running through its curiously mean feature story is that she doesn't deserve the hype. This diva is apparently "a queen bee," and though she "isn't a great actress" and "there's something strange about her beauty," she "can really put away the Chinese food" -- and anyway, she's "richer than God." Unless Premiere is simply courting the readership of the more irreverent Movieline, the magazine seems to think there's an audience for Whitney-bashing -- perhaps in recognition of that venerable tradition about distrusting singers who try to act.

Nevertheless, the pop star acquits herself capably in The Preacher's Wife, an old-fashioned heartwarmer that gives her a stage on which to perform her hits by casting her as a gospel singer -- "born with the gift of soul," as her young son says -- who happens to rehearse a lot in her spare time. Houston's Julia, 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 sings a lullaby to her sleepless boy (Justin Pierre Edmund). Director Penny Marshall dutifully cues up another toe-tapper to fit an ice-skating musical montage; and when the church's kiddie production suddenly needs an understudy, Julia grabs the mike 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. In other words, he's another of those flailing patriarchs so beloved in mainstream movie fictions. He feels personally responsible for the lack of offering-plate money to fix the church's broken boiler; and amid the closing of a local youth center and the arrest of an apparently innocent boy charged with armed robbery, Henry considers hanging up his collar for good. 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 one." At first, Henry reacts as if to the Cable Guy: who is this weirdly sociable stranger? Besides, this smooth-talking, problem-solving angel poses yet another threat to his manhood. It's lucky for Henry's ego that he doesn't feel jealous of his wife's radio-friendly singing voice.

This carefully wrapped holiday package takes its plot from The Bishop's Wife (1947), a featherweight comedy released in the months between It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, 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 postwar era, as returning heroes fought to reassert their control on the home front. (Concurrent with this male-fantasy genre, the film noir and the melodrama argued that women couldn't handle their new independence.) To its credit, the '96 version aspires to a higher power than the dated and stagy original. 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 mom (Jenifer Lewis) with the miracle of quitting smoking.

In fact, it's precisely this warm spirit of optimism that 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 good-samaritanism. There's a righteously secular (if routine) subplot about the preacher's struggle to resist an offer from a gated-community magnate (Gregory Hines), having less to do with divine intervention than grass-roots activism. Indeed, one has only to endure the vulgar commercialism of Jingle All the Way to appreciate the agenda here. Still, this Hollywood Preacher isn't above accepting a corporate donation. One of the movie's funniest jokes suggests that whoever designed the start-up screen for Microsoft Windows took his or her inspiration from Heaven above.