When was the last time you saw Denzel Washington grin? It happens briefly in the new-to-video romantic dramedy The Preacher’s Wife, but it's been a long time coming. Hollywood's most consistently intense black leading man has portrayed zealous heroes in a decade's worth of high-minded dramas and adrenaline-percolating adventures, including by-the-book naval officer Hunter in Crimson Tide (1995), fiery radical Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 biopic, and the glowering slave Trip in Glory (1989) for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
In all these grave scenarios, Washington's had no real chance to work his comedy skills, unflexed since 1990's bypassable buddy movie Heart Condition, in which he played a ghost who spars with Bob Hoskins. He's undead again in Preacher’s Wife, playing an angel named Dudley who comes back to earth to help save a run-down church, its overwhelmed minister, and his frustrated wife.
The video jacket, which plays up the teaming of Washington and sleek songbird Whitney Houston under the direction of hitmaker Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own), makes the prospect seem especially appealing. The problem is that Washington competes with the memory of yet another ghost: Cary Grant, who played Dudley, the angel in the 1947 film that inspired The Preacher's Wife, The Bishop's Wife. Ubiquitous on TV during the holiday season and available on tape year-round, the Capraesque original follows Grant's charismatic Dudley as he reunites an ambitious clergyman (a worn-looking David Niven) with his neglected spouse (a luminous Loretta Young). Dudley executes his good deeds with such relaxed good cheer, incandescent charm, and beautifully toothy smiles that he captivates everyone in town not to mention anybody watching the movie. Grant's turn is thoroughly convincing because he himself appears to be having a terrific time: He's expansive, graceful, and seems always on the verge of chuckling with goodwill.
In all fairness, it would take a miracle for any actor, past or present, to equal Grant's appeal. But the somber Washington comes nowhere near making the 1996 Dudley a divine figure. Except for a brief explosion of glee early on, when we see that dazzling gin, the actor plays his angel as if he's still in one of his straight-arrow mortal roles: Yet again, he's earnest and well-meaning. As he helps an overworked ghetto pastor (Courtney B. Vance, in an underwritten role) revive his marriage to a gorgeous, gospel-singing helpmate (Houston), Washington's Dudley looks natty in an elegant suit, but he's all hesitation and uncertainty.
Consequently, Washington never quite musters the magnetism he needs to claim the story's center. And the story doesn't really have a center in the hands of screenwriters Jeremy Leven and Allan Scott. They squander our attention on ostensibly topical subplots and ladle in mush by framing the film in sappy voiceovers by the preacher's young son (Justin Pierre Edmund). Meanwhile, director Marshall slackens the film's pacing to the point of tedium; she even interrupts the action for a shamelessly extended product placement for Microsoft Windows that's indistinguishable from a TV commercial. Most disappointingly, the filmmakers don't give Dudley fun miracles to perform, in contrast to Grant's seraph, who dictates a sermon to a typewriter, assembles a boys choir, and persuades a rich woman to give a million dollars to the poor. This Dudley's spiritual power resides almost exclusively in his handshake, which leaves people awed and solemn.
In the end, the most compelling presence in The Preacher's Wife turns out to be the preacher’s wife. Houston's joyful church numbers rouse the viewer's heart as none of the acting does; in fact, her rapturous transports of song make her more a creature of heaven than her angel friend seems to be. There are certainly movies in which Denzel Washington's sincere style elevates his character to an almost sublime level of heroism and grace. Here, though, he's overpowered by the spirit of his predecessor and the soul of his costar. By comparison, he remains dismayingly earthbound. C-