Psalm Like It Hot

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 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. Despite being denied a moment like that in the movies, Houston's a movie star -- though every time someone says that, it's tough not to think back to The Bodyguard.

Her rapt self-absorption almost functions as a state of grace -- maybe she is that lovable -- and when she wraps those gifted tonsils around one of those badly chosen songs she whups 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.

Along that line, The Preacher's Wife has one of the most spectacular cheats in movie history. It's the story of a failing church in a rundown parish, and director Penny Marshall first shows us the church as a powerful gospel choir rattles the rafters (the place may be in such bad condition because they blow the roof off the sucker every Sunday). That anyone is supposed to accept the premise of an underattended church with a choir so good they could score a recording contract shakes your belief in this remake of The Bishop's Wife (1947) from the very start.

Marshall's interest in retooling the original -- in which an angel is sent from above to help a bishop with his life and vocation, but not too much -- is a little puzzling because The Bishop's Wife is a dim, wet kiss from a moustached aunt in the first place. It starred Cary Grant as the angel Dudley and David Niven as the bishop with a troubled life and parish; you can almost smell the mold and liniment that held Leo Koster's version together (it was, however, nominated for a host of Oscars). And whatever interest the first Wife stirred came because the picture put Grant side by side with Niven, a third-generation Xerox of Grant; the original hid his contempt for his ersatz-continental costar with the tiniest and most precise of double takes and gestures. Cary Grant always had being Cary Grant to fall back on, and the concept of a dazzlingly urbane chap on a mission from God -- and Grant's game, wily presence itself -- suggested constant questioning of his virginal detachment from the Big Man Himself.

The Preacher's Wife is timid and discreet from the start, but this ramshackle crowd pleaser couldn't be more eager to win you over -- even though it's as rundown as the church headed by the Reverend Henry Briggs (Courtney B. Vance). Since no one in his right mind is going to remake It's a Wonderful Life again, we're doomed to endure another Magic of Christmas picture that's actually a form of Wonderful Life mania; it's not the real thing but an incredible simulation. The Preacher's Wife is so cuddly and threadbare that one slips into a state of shock, and eventually depression, over its smiley torpor. It lacks the suave professionalism that Grant could convey. In Grant's place this time out is Denzel Washington as Dudley, and he simply has too much class as an actor to pander. He's not a mere personality. Someone more limited as an actor but to whom we have automatic-pilot responses -- Eddie Murphy, say, or Ice Cube -- would have done the movie a lot more good.

Washington looks sleek and healthy, like he hasn't missed a night's sleep in a long time, and he saunters through The Preacher's Wife good-naturedly. But he has nothing to do except stand around and watch. The film hasn't been rethought in an interesting way: It's set in an inner city that would have pleased Frank Capra, and all the angel-out-of-Heaven stuff is so tired it's arthritic. Vance spends all of his time looking defeated, and his efforts aren't enough to fight off that choir.

It is more believable that Washington's Dudley would be swept away by Houston's wife than that Grant would bother to look twice at Loretta Young. All of Houston's complaining about Vance's having no time for her because he's so caught up in, y'know, helping the community and all is pouty and selfish -- but she is, well, Whitney Houston. The Preacher's Wife achieves a similarity to the original because there's no chemistry between Houston and Washington, or Houston and Vance, or Houston and ... anybody. Still, attaining the feeble mediocrity of The Bishop's Wife almost 50 years later can't be much of an accomplishment.

The Preacher's Wife.
Written by Nat Mauklin and Allan Scott; directed by Penny Marshall; with Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington, Courtney B. Vance, Loretta Devine, Gregory Hines, and Jennifer Lewis.

 
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