Because I have been a fan of The Bishop's Wife for so many years, I was never in a rush to check out this mid-'90s remake. I knew I would get around to it one day, Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington in main roles would see to that, but I never made it a priority. Until now. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it, but it pales in comparison to the original film, as well as not really doing good enough in simpler, Christmas movie, terms.
Courtney B. Vance is Reverend Henry Biggs, a man who is struggling with his role. He seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut, unable to truly inspire members of his congregation, and unable to figure out the best way to effectively help the community. He's also not been present in his marriage to Julia (Houston), a young woman who tries to support her husband at all times, and who provides the best singing voice in the church choir. Thankfully, an angel (Dudley, played by Denzel Washington) is sent down to help. Nobody really believes that he is an angel though, and everyone should forget all about him once his work is done.
Written by Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott, reworking the source material from the Robert Nathan novel and the 1947 movie, The Preacher's Wife should work much better than it does. There are great people in central roles, including Gregory Hines, Jenifer Lewis, and Loretta Devine, and Penny Marshall is the talented director helming the thing. It actually does well, raising a smile here and there, when focusing on the character of Dudley, largely thanks to an absolutely charming performance from Washington helping to keep any negative thoughts at bay. It's also altogether easier to enjoy whenever Houston is lighting up the screen with her presence. Sadly, and somewhat paradoxically, it is dragged down by moments that feel obviously inserted into the plot to give screentime to Houston's singing talent. She has a great voice, no doubt about it, but the whole film screeches to a halt for a few different songs that could easily have been excised in service of much better pacing.
As horrible as it might seem, I could also have done without the horrible performance from the main child star in the cast, Justin Pierre Edmund. Playing Jeremiah Biggs, the son of Henry and Julia, Edmund is just overdoing everything in a film that works best when the cast are allowed to be relatively quiet. He's not alone, this is a film that feels very much like the professional adults were happily giving a chance to amateur youngsters.
I could heap praise on both Washington and Houston all day long, and I'd kill to just once look as sharply-dressed as the former, but Vance also does really good work, despite the fact that he has the toughest of the three lead roles, as the harried man trying to balance his faith and love with harsh realities. Lewis does well with her role (playing the concerned mother of Houston's character), Devine is left with little to do, but she's someone I tend to enjoy in any role, and Hines has to be the main villain, but suffers from a rushed third act that delivers the expected ending without any of it feeling truly earned. There are also roles for Paul Bates and Lionel Ritchie, the former playing a kind-hearted soul pining for Devine's character and the latter playing, well, Lionel Ritchie.
Some people will be able to enjoy this more than I did, especially those just wanting to hear Whitney Houston sing some songs that aren't in the usual rotation of her many hits, but it's hard to view it as anything other than a huge disappointment. It's also (pleasantly) surprising that nobody has tried to remake it again recently. I wouldn't even mind if they gave Washington another chance in the role of the helpful angel.
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