The wisdom of Fats Waller is useful in trying to nail down this thing called chemistry. ”Lady,” the jazz pianist famously replied when asked to explain rhythm, ”if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.” In The Preacher’s Wife, Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington ain’t. And why that’s so — how come one old-fashioned romantic comedy with big-name talent clicks and the other doesn’t — makes for a tidy lesson in star pairing.
Whitney Houston is to die for primarily when she sings. And there’s not nearly enough opportunity for her to let loose, Bodyguard style, in The Preacher’s Wife. In this gospelized update of the 1947 cockle warmer The Bishop’s Wife (with Loretta Young, David Niven, and Cary Grant on suave angel patrol), Houston plays Julia, the helpmate of an earnest, hardworking preacher called Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance). Poor Henry, see, is so busy fretting he’s not doing enough to help his struggling congregation that he dang near neglects his beautiful wife and their cute-as-heck little son. Praying for an assist, Henry summons up the resources of Dudley (Denzel Washington), a natty angel who falls to earth dressed in a sharp pearl gray fedora and coat, ready to be of service. The service he provides — among other, larger miracles — is to remind Mrs. Biggs how it feels to be appreciated by a cute guy.
The pieces of this production display all the inspiration of a corporate business plan: scattershot direction by Penny Marshall, check. Graceless, earthbound script by rank-and-file Hollywood men Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott (based on the 1947 screenplay by the truly inspired screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood and colleague Leonardo Bercovici), check. Hit single, ”I Believe in You and Me,” already shipped, check. With so little joy to the world backing them up, the burden falls to Houston and Washington to get the spirit moving. And that’s where Preacher misses the beat. Everything that is self-contained and dramatically awkward in Houston bumps up against everything that is reserved and stately in Washington, and no sparks ignite. The woman is lovely and her gospel roots run deep, but she is not at home displaying her sexuality in the spoken, rather than sung, word; the man is a strong actor capable of expressing personal passion — nowhere finer than in Courage Under Fire — but he is never less expansive than when paired romantically with a woman.
And so Houston and Washington, these two admirable personages, stand like missionaries, spreading the word of Good Clean Family Fun but never lighting our fire. (Poor Vance, with his prissy wire-rimmed spectacles and sad speeches, never has a prayer of lighting Houston’s fire, or ours.) This, by the way, leaves Jenifer Lewis to steal the picture — and she does. As Julia’s mother, who noses into her daughter’s business (and who appreciates Dudley as a burnin’ hunk of manhood), the high-spirited actress (Girl 6, What’s Love Got to Do With It) bites into the role like it’s a juicy Christmas candy apple. Lewis is one hot ticket in a lukewarm story. Had she made a serious play for Washington, this dud-ly production might have produced quite a different chemical bang. C+