Picks and Pans Review: The Preacher's Wife

updated 12/16/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Courtney B. Vance, Gregory Hines

God works in mysterious ways, but heaven cannot be blamed for the logic—or lack thereof—of Christmas fantasies. Angelic emissaries are sent to earth with messages of hope and faith. They work miracles and even reverse time. But the humans are never simply wowed into accepting these divine tidings, and the angels never just flap off, satisfied (not proud—that's a sin) with a job well done. Complications inevitably arise.

In this cute, borderline-trite reworking of the 1947 film The Bishop's Wife—which starred Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young—Washington is literally dropped down in the snow outside the home of the unhappy pastor (Vance) he has been sent to save. The preacher breathes no fire into his sermons, pays too little attention to his lovely spouse (Houston) and is on the verge of losing his church to a land developer (Hines). Washington, disclosing his identity only to the disbelieving Vance, quickly charms the man's family and his parishioners. Though smooth and smiling, Washington at first conveys an oddly menacing air—something more Rod Serling than Charles Dickens. But he is touchingly human when he violates instructions from above and falls in love with Houston, who's willing to be seduced.

Houston's performance is sweet but remote, as if in the back of her mind she were making a list and slowly ticking off items. She's a better actress in the way she soars through a song. She has a batch of gospel numbers here, and ends the movie with an electrifying "Joy to the World." The Preacher's Wife might have fared better had it been a musical. (PG).

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