Whitney Houston has had a Movie Star Moment -- just not in a movie. Near the end of the "I'm Saving All My Love for You" video, she turns toward the camera with a luminous smile that wilts into heartbreak when she's realizes she's been dropped by her, um, boyfriend. It's a moment reminiscent of Rita Hayworth's hair toss in Gilda or Chow Yun Fat's tooth-gnashing in Hard Boiled, the kind of instantaneous connection that screams presence.
Her rapt self-absorption almost functions as a state of grace -- maybe she is that lovable -- and when she whups one of those badly chosen songs in a one-round knockout, you realize you're in the presence of something. You're not sure what, exactly, but something. Maybe it's that she actually seems to consider herself a religious experience, so it only makes sense to deposit her in a film such as The Preacher's Wife, where she gets to use her sure-fire talent -- and I don't mean acting -- and serve the Lord at the same time.
It's puzzling why director Penny Marshall wanted to remake The Bishop's Wife, a 1947 movie in which an angel is sent from above to help a bishop with his life and vocation; the original movie was a dim, wet kiss from a mustached aunt. Equipped with a wink and a limp, it starred Cary Grant as the angel Dudley and David Niven as the bishop, and you could almost smell the must and liniment that held Henry Koster's version together. And what personal minor interest the first Wife stirred came from placing Grant side by side with Niven, a third-generation Xerox of Grant. Grant hid his contempt for his ersatz-continental co-star with the tiniest and most precise of double takes and gestures. And at worst, Grant could always fall back on being Cary Grant.
The Preacher's Wife moves the tale to a failing church in an inner city that would have pleased Frank Capra. We first encounter the church as its powerful gospel choir rattles the rafters (the place may be in such bad condition because they blow the roof off every Sunday). The setup may qualify as one of the most spectacular cheats in movie history: We're supposed to believe that an underattended church has a choir so good it could score a recording contract?
In Grant's place as the angel is Denzel Washington, who saunters through the film good-naturedly, but unfortunately has too much class as an actor to pander. He refuses to be a mere personality, even though that's what the part demands. Someone who's more limited as an actor but to whom we have automatic-pilot responses -- Eddie Murphy, say, or Ice Cube -- would have done a lot more good.
Part of Washington's problem is that he has nothing to do except stand around and watch. And as the preacher, Courtney B. Vance spends all of his time looking defeated.
The sequel at least trumps the original in one respect: It is more believable that Washington would be swept away by Houston than that Grant would bother to look twice at Loretta Young. Houston seems pouty and selfish when she complains about Vance's having no time for her because he's so caught up in, y'know, helping the community -- but she's, well, Whitney Houston. But alas, as in the original, there's no chemistry between Houston and Washington, or Houston and Vance, or Houston and ... anybody.
No one in his right mind is going to remake It's a Wonderful Life again -- at least, not directly. But the Magic of Christmas market remains, and that means we're doomed to endure the results of Wonderful Life mania, pale simulations of the real thing. And such simulations will do nothing to improve your holiday spirit. The Preacher's Wife is so cuddly and threadbare one slips into a state of shock, and eventually depression, over its smiley torpor.
The Preacher's Wife.
Directed by Penny Marshall. With Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.
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