Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: December 13, 1996
Directed by: Penny Marshall
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Stars: 3 out of 5
Penny Marshall’s version of “The Preacher’s Wife” is a pleasant-enough film with a fantastic turn by Denzel Washington as Dudley, an angel who is as dapper as he is kind. It’s a remake of the 1947 film “The Bishop’s Wife,” which itself took some liberties by grabbing some story threads from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Like both of those classics, “The Preacher’s Wife” details an angel sent to Earth to help a man, this time Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance), regain control of his life, marriage, and career before they fall apart. The result is a fine yet sentimental journey that plays to director Marshall’s strengths without moving too far from its crowd-pleasing goals.
The film starts with Henry Biggs, a Baptist minister, finding himself in over his head. Knee-deep in debt and with his marriage to Julia (Whitney Houston) on the rocks, Biggs puts all his energy into his church patrons, helping them to the point he neglects his personal needs. When real estate mogul Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines) starts eyeing Biggs’ church property, the good reverend suddenly finds himself praying for a savior to get him through this dark time.
Enter Dudley, an angel sent from on high to help Biggs and his family as the Christmas season approaches. Suave and svelte, Dudley’s confidence and overabundance of nice makes Henry suspicious. Meanwhile, Julia begins to fall for the angel, leading to an underlying tension that may lead to even greater damage in the Biggs family despite Dudley’s best intentions.
Faith and family are the two major themes present in “The Preacher’s Wife,” creating a plot that should hit home with anyone who has dealt with hard times. The relationship between Henry and Julia is well thought out, and the moral conundrum Dudley finds himself in when he realizes he has feelings for the reverend’s wife only adds to the story’s momentum.
If “The Preacher’s Wife” sounds a bit on the schmaltzy side, it’s because it is-by design. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is, and it excels at putting forth a solid holiday-based flick about love and faith. While the film’s basic premise mines old tropes and clichés, the strength of the performances lifts “The Preacher’s Wife” above its contemporaries. Denzel Washington is especially charming as Dudley, showing off a nice guy side of his acting persona that stands in stark contrast to his usual turn as the hard-living antihero. Meanwhile, Houston does wonders as Julia, more than making the role her own in her first turn in a family-focused drama. Released in 1996 during Houston’s golden era as a pop star, the film takes advantage of her vocal prowess, setting up several scenes with her as a gospel singer to showcase her skill. These scenes are particularly poignant considering Houston’s fate, adding a maudlin feel to an otherwise festive outing.
Director Penny Marshall knows how to make family-friendly movies that appeal to all audiences, having hit pay dirt with “Big” and “A League of Their Own.” While “The Preacher’s Wife” never quite hits the highs of those films, it does get by on the charm of its leads and its optimism. In an era of cynicism, there is something especially quaint about a film that basks in its own warmth and sunny outlook. That it has the audacity to feature an ending that is both happy and a bit unexpected is a welcome twist, offering an element of hope for all of its protagonists. While the general idea does tread into “It’s a Wonderful Life” territory, “The Preacher’s Wife” does enough to push away from its influences to create something that is wholly its own. For those looking for a holiday movie that revels in good cheer but is also a bit underrated, “The Preacher’s Wife” may be a good one to put on.
Ultimately, “The Preacher’s Wife” is a solid film with a delightful Denzel Washington performance that has him playing outside his comfort zone. Its themes of family and faith should hit home for those audiences looking for a film that checks its cynicism at the door and wears its heart on its sleeve. That the movie showcases the late Whitney Houston’s vocal talents is an added bonus-it’s truly something special to watch her unleash her voice in a gospel setting. Her golden age may have been coming to an end, but this is a thrilling reminder of what she could do at the peak of her powers.