When it comes to remakes, my longtime readers know I’m pretty ambivalent with a variable degree of distaste. Every once in a while, though, a remake will nail it, or turn out even better than the original. One of the good ones is The Preacher’s Wife, the 1997 remake of The Bishop’s Wife. Directed by Penny Marshall, sister of Garry and the Laverne half of Laverne and Shirley, The Preacher’s Wife is a charming Christmas film with a heavy dash of gospel soul.
The movie is set in Philadelphia and narrated by four-year old Jeremiah (Justin Pierre Edmund), whose dad, Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) is the pastor of St. Matthew’s Baptist Church. His mom, Julia (Whitney Houston) is the worship leader and featured soloist. Julia and Henry have grown up together, going to the same school and St. Matt’s, plus Julia’s late dad was the pastor, so they’ve got a long history and know everyone in the community.
Henry’s ministry has grown rather stale. He’s busy helping everyone, trying to be everywhere at once, and is so stressed that one Sunday he recycles an old sermon of Julia’s dad’s. Henry loves his family, but his pace is so crazy that they’re losing track of each other, particularly he and Julia. Julia isn’t happy with him because a greedy millionaire developer named Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines) is dangling the possibility of a glitzy new church complex in front of him. Both Julia and her mother, Margueritte (Jennifer Lewis) are suspicious of Joe–in Margueritte’s words, “You could fry chicken on that man’s smile.” Joe is a fact of life, though, since he’s on the church’s board of directors and holds the mortgage on St. Matthew’s.
Indeed, the Biggs family and St. Matt’s have problems, but that’s where angel Dudley (Denzel Washington) comes in. His arrival on Earth involves a rather wild plunge into the snow, where Jeremiah and his friend, Hakim (Darvel Davis, Jr.) are making snow angels. Naturally, both of them freak out at seeing a strange guy all of a sudden, and Dudley books it out of there, making a beeline for the local food trucks.
Dudley installs himself as Henry’s new assistant. Henry’s resistant, but Dudley’s a persevering fellow. According to the little book Dudley carries, there are certain rules to their partnership. Henry doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Dudley can’t do anything that Henry can do himself. When Dudley’s mission is completed and it’s time for him to go, Henry won’t have any memory of him. Henry’s an especial fan of that last point.
Working for Henry means hanging out with Julia and Jeremiah, which Dudley is happy to do. As far as Jeremiah is concerned, he’s got a new friend, and Julia finds Dudley intriguing. The two of them get thrown together a lot because Henry is too busy to spend time with his wife. Dudley is attracted to Julia, and he starts fiddling with traffic lights so Henry runs even later.
Still, Dudley does the right thing, and he tries to get Henry to take Julia out. Julia’s overjoyed, and she comes down the stairs looking ravishing for their date, only to find Henry has to visit someone in the hospital.
Henry tells Dudley to take Julia out for him, and he seems completely fine with it. The two of them go to Jazzie’s, the club where Henry and Julia used to be regulars. It was the spot where Henry proposed, and the two of them are longtime friends with Jazzie’s owner and bandleader, Britsloe (Lionel Ritchie). Julia used to sing with the band, too, so for old times’ sake, Dudley and Britsloe talk Julia into torching the place down:
Henry isn’t as fine with Dudley being on a sort-of date with Julia as he seemed to be earlier, because he waits up for them, sitting in the dark like an angry parent. When he finds out they went to Jazzie’s, he’s full-on jealous. The last straw is Julia beginning to be attracted to Dudley as well, so Henry fires Dudley and tosses his rulebook in the fire.
However, Dudley’s influence is breaking through. Henry begins to hope again. That hope ends up carrying him through a few prominent members of his congregation getting chummy with Joe Hamilton and the prospect of his church being turned into a parking lot. He may be pleasantly surprised at how things work out, though. Joe Hamilton isn’t off the hook for being the Ebeneezer Scrooge of the proceedings, either, because Dudley is going to pay him a visit and go all Ghost of Christmas Future on him, only way less scary.
The biggest difference between Bishop and Preacher is that Preacher is way less crammed with things for the cast to do, but each movie succeeds on its own terms. In Bishop, Cary Grant was a joyous Dudley who worked several miracles on the side, exercising influence that the Bishop doesn’t know about. In Preacher, Denzel’s Dudley focuses primarily on the Biggs family, which gives him time to spar with Henry and go skating with Julia and Jeremiah. This is one of the great joys of the film, because it shows how much Henry is collapsing under the weight of trying to do everything, and I just wanted him to be able to share the load. Burnout is a common tale among clergy, particularly those who come into lead pastor roles at relatively young ages, so it’s always good to see a sincere minister and true leader supported by his congregation.
Denzel Washington was an uncredited producer on the film, as his production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, headed up the making of The Preacher’s Wife. Some of the scenes were shot at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Yonkers, New York, with a good chunk of the church’s congregants playing extras.
Whitney Houston was, of course, a powerhouse. She has warm chemistry with both Washington and Vance, although there’s not much question who she’ll end up with. Houston didn’t want to play Julia at first, because she thought she couldn’t relate to the part, but Washington convinced her to do it. Unfortunately, she was pretty heavily into cocaine and marijuana at the time, ingesting these drugs at least once a day. It didn’t seem to show in her performance; however, trained eyes might see it differently. Either way, Houston was one of the great voices of the twentieth century and now sadly missed.
The Preacher’s Wife is awesome in a sedate way. It’s not completely correct from a Biblical standpoint, as humans don’t become angels when they die, but the heart of the story is in the right place. It’s also full of humor and fantastic music. While it’s been criticized for moving too slowly, there’s still plenty of charm. As Roger Ebert pointed out, “This movie could have done more, but what it does, it makes you feel good about.”
Another Reading Rarity is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…