Community Values

The Preacher's Wife

area theaters

Palookaville

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

JUDGING FROM THAT almighty arbiter known as Premiere, there are moviegoers waiting to expel Whitney Houston from her stardom. Waiting to Exhale and The Bodyguard, both $100-million grossers with huge soundtrack tie-ins, were enough to earn Houston a spot on Premiere's latest cover. But the subtext running through its curiously mean feature story is that she doesn't deserve the hype: This diva is apparently "a queen bee" whom many consider "a callow, shallow genius," and although she "isn't a great actress" and "there's something strange about her beauty," she "can really put away the Chinese food"--and anyway, she's "richer than God." So unless Premiere is simply courting the readership of the more irreverent Movieline, the magazine seems to think there's an audience for Whitney-bashing--perhaps owing to that venerable tradition of distrust about singers who try to act. (See also: Courtney, Barbra, Madonna.)

Nevertheless, the pop star acquits herself capably in The Preacher's Wife, an old-fashioned heartwarmer that shrewdly casts her as a gospel singer who just so happens to rehearse a lot in her spare time. Houston's Julia, a Baptist preacher's wife in a mid-sized northeastern town, begins the movie by belting out an upbeat church ditty, and then a few minutes later performs a lullaby for her restless young son (Justin Pierre Edmund). Director Penny Marshall dutifully cues up another Whitney toe-tapper to fit an ice-skating musical montage; and when the church's kiddie production suddenly needs an understudy, Julia grabs the mic without missing a beat. A UCLA film school prof could use The Preacher's Wife to illustrate the many creative ways a soundtrack can be peddled in a studio feature.

But as it turns out, the songs are also a nice tie-in to the formulaic charm of the film itself. The title aside, this is actually the familiar story of the preacher's wife's husband, Henry (Courtney B. Vance), a humorless workaholic who can't escape the saintly shadow of Julia's minister father. Feeling personally responsible for the lack of offering-plate money to restore his church, this fallen patriarch considers hanging up his collar, asks God for help, and is rewarded with Dudley (Denzel Washington), an anachronistically kind angel whose handshake feels "like springtime and Mom's home cookin' all rolled into one." At first, Henry reacts as if to the Cable Guy: Who is this weirdly sociable stranger? And then this smooth-talking, problem-solving angel poses yet another threat to the preacher's manhood. At least poor Henry doesn't feel jealous of his wife's radio-friendly singing voice.

This carefully wrapped holiday package takes its plot from the very dated The Bishop's Wife (1947), with David Niven and Loretta Young as the preacher and his wife, and Cary Grant as the angel. To its credit, the remake aspires to a higher power, meaning to heal us of extramarital temptation, community apathy, and loss of faith. It's a movie of such clean heart that it even blesses Julia's mom (Jenifer Lewis) with the miracle of quitting smoking. Houston's inevitable chart-toppers aside, The Preacher's Wife mainly sells the values of cooperation and Good Samaritanism in the face of a greedy gated-community magnate (Gregory Hines)--a good deed in this season of Jingle All the Way. Still, this cross-promotional godsend isn't above accepting a well-placed corporate donation. One of the film's more sacred jokes suggests that whoever designed the start-up screen for Microsoft Windows took inspiration from heaven above.

Far less sacrosanct, the week's other community portrait is Palookaville, a parody of tough-guy indies set on the scuzzy-looking mean streets of Jersey City. It follows the efforts of three bumbling crooks--Sid (William Forsythe), Russ (Vincent Gallo), and Jerry (Adam Trese)--to make one big score, after their botched jewel heist yields nothing but a handful of sugar donuts. No less scavenging than Sid's smelly dogs, these guys wrap stolen meatballs in tissue paper, expound on the virtues of using cap guns ("The thief always gets the benefit of the doubt," Russ proclaims), and prepare for their ultimate stickup job by screening the 1950 caper Armored Car Robbery.

As directed by newcomer Alan Taylor, the film's blend of deadpan humor and unexpected sympathy is perfectly measured; and the standout in a strong cast is Gallo, a highly talented, beautifully ugly actor who resembles a vampiric cross between Nicolas Cage and Quentin Tarantino. At long last, Reservoir Dogs delivers the runt of its mangy litter: an indie mongrel that isn't timid about biting the hand that feeds.

 
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