Hope and love are the forces that can overcome life’s travails according to “The Preacher’s Wife.” And in this likable, modern musical fairy tale, one mostly wants to believe that’s true. The filmmakers and talent certainly work hard to win our trust in this throwback to bygone movies, and that should translate into very up-tempo box office, especially with the sizable African-American audience.
Based on the pleasantly appealing 1947 Goldwyn production “The Bishop’s Wife,” the new outing transposes the action to an unnamed contempo New York-area setting. St. Matthew’s Baptist Church is in trouble that runs deeper than mounting debts, a failing boiler and a declining congregation. The Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney Vance) is in the throes of a crisis of confidence that is affecting every aspect of his personal and professional existence.
Henry asks for divine intervention. Not only is his prayer heard, but help is sent in the form of a handsome angel (the wings, he says, are a bad literary cliche) named Dudley. This should not be viewed as a caution to be careful for what you wish.
Though intelligently adapted by Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott, “Preacher’s Wife” remains rooted in sentiments from another era. Bank mortgages, Christmas pageants, a cardboard villain and petty criminal activity that figure into the tale seem curiously out of date and perfunctory.
However, there still are plenty of timeless and modern elements for director Penny Marshall to explore. Obviously the rev’s feeling of inadequacy is a core issue. That sets off tremors in his relationship with his wife Julia (Whitney Houston) — a considerably more strong-willed woman (and a better singer) than the one portrayed by Loretta Young.
It’s also frankly more adult about sexual tension and jealousy than was the case when Cary Grant’s angel and David Niven’s minister tangled. Though both the current men know a liaison between Dudley and Julia is impossible, the realization that certain temporal feelings exist proves unnerving. Julia — unaware of Dudley’s true nature — even admits to temptation.
The message is clear and unfussy: Listen, speak from your heart and act on your convictions. Or, believe in yourself and others will follow.
Simplicity is somewhat of a mixed blessing for the film. Dramatically, it minimizes a lot of the tension, skimming over issues with the gliding grace of a skater and dusting off problems as if they were stray pieces of lint on a jacket. However, it does allow for the interjection of a lot of musical moments for Houston, who leads the choir in rousing gospels, torch sings in a local club and provides the vocal over the closing credits.
Houston remains more a presence than an actress, but she is extremely commanding all the same. She’s stellar at the microphone and, flanked by Washington and Vance, a credible dramatic foil.
Both male leads are exceptionally strong, with Washington in seventh heaven at this opportunity to play an unfettered innocent. Vance wonderfully delineates a character whose concern for others verges on the neurotic. The prospect of going out and having a good time fills him with guilt and dread.
Director Marshall creates a very pretty, near postcard-perfect environment for this fantasy. Although some of her pacing and structure is a tad inelegant, Miroslav Ondricek’s camerawork and Bill Groom’s production design are pristine. It’s an inarguably handsome piece with plenty of heart to warm the holiday mood and bring cheer at the box office.