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Heaven Comes to Houston

Whitney Houston
David Lee

The Gospel Truth: Whitney Houston provides a surprising dose of sincerity to "The Preacher's Wife."

Whitney sings like an angel in 'Preacher's Wife'

By Rob Nelson

FACED WITH some unflattering press over the last year, Whitney Houston acquits herself capably in The Preacher's Wife. It's an old-fashioned heart-warmer that literally gives the pop star a stage on which to perform her hits, while the movie in turn benefits from her newly sincere screen presence.

Director Penny Marshall, the epitome of a mainstream filmmaker, solidifies this mutually beneficial trade by casting Houston as a gospel singer who just so happens to rehearse a lot in her spare time. Houston's Julia Biggs, 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 performs a lullaby for her sleepless young son (Justin Pierre Edmund).

Lest the film be forced to rely on its story alone, Marshall dutifully cues up another Whitney toe-tapper to fit an ice-skating musical montage; and when the church's kiddie production suddenly needs an understudy, Julia grabs the mic 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.

Henry feels personally responsible for the lack of offering-plate money to restore his church. 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? And then the preacher's problem is that this smooth-talking, problem-solving angel poses yet another threat to his manhood. At least Henry doesn't feel jealous of his wife's radio-friendly singing voice.

This carefully wrapped holiday package takes its basic plot from The Bishop's Wife (1947), 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 post-WWII era, as returning heroes fought to reassert their control on the home front.

To its credit, the 1996 version aspires to a higher power than the very dated and stagy original. Specifically, 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 mother (Jenifer Lewis) with the miracle of quitting smoking.

Surprisingly, this genuine spirit of optimism 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.

Still, this Hollywood Preacher isn't above accepting a well-timed corporate donation. One of the movie's funniest jokes suggests that whoever designed the startup screen for Microsoft Windows took their inspiration from heaven above.

The Preacher's Wife (PG; 121 min.), directed by Penny Marshall, written by Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott, photographed by Miroslav Ondricek and starring Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance.

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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