Sister Act (1992) / Comedy-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG for violence and mild language
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Keitel, Bill Nunn, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena, Mary Wickes, Robert Miranda, Richard Portnow, Jenifer Lewis
Cameo: Nicky Katt
Director: Emile Ardolino

Screenplay: Joseph Howard
Review published January 16, 2008

A weak movie by all accounts (not to mention nearly redundant in plot to Nuns on the Run), but still a crowd-pleaser hit at the box office (#6 top gross in the US for 1992), Sister Act has only one thing going for it -- the sight of nuns singing Motown classics as church hymns -- which it milks for all it's worth when they have the opportunity.  Watching this film gives me the same feeling of watching Arnie's Kindergarten Cop, where the "cute stuff" is ensconced in a fairly bad action-thriller.  Somehow the feelings evoked during these cute moments are enough for people to forgive the very weak, and quite dark, elements that bookend the entertainment.  It sounds like movie-going audiences in tune with this film already practice such nun-like virtues as forgiveness, tolerance and turning the other cheek when it comes to bad entertainment.

Whoopi Goldberg (The Player, The Associate) stars as Reno lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, main squeeze of mobster Vince LaRocca (Keitel, Reservoir Dogs), whose life changes for the worse when she is witness to one of LaRocca's murders.  A caring police detective decides to hide her while in custody until the trial is over, putting her in the one place LaRocca will never look -- an isolationist convent in San Francisco.  Deloris, now assuming the moniker of Sister Mary Clarence, butts heads with the Mother Superior, but soon learns to earn her keep by helping out with the all-nun choir, which is as dreadful to the ears as can be.  Deloris helps them improve almost immediately, but not without first injecting her own sense of rhythm to their delivery, mixing the sounds of old Soul with the choir setting.  The experiment is a hit, but it also has garnered rabid media attention -- attention that Deloris definitely doesn't need if she wants to stay incognito until Vince is behind bars.

It's a bit odd that the film's biggest selling point, the nuns singing, actually isn't employed nearly as much as you'd think.  At least half of the film deals with the clunky mob kill and search, which does tend to mar the feel-good aspects of the scenes where Deloris gets the humble nuns to dig deep inside themselves as singers.  Although PG-rated, there are quite a few guns on display, as well as executions, both implied and attempted.  Nevertheless, Ardolino injects the action with a constant dose of bumbling slapstick, letting the audience know that he won't cross the line by actually putting any character we care about in true mortal danger.

Sister Act is a film that seems funnier and more charming both before and after you see it than it does when you are actually viewing it.  Possibly this has to do with most people either ignoring the parts they don't like, or in my case, zoning out.  All eyes will be on the nuns when they are actually singing, listening to old songs like "I Will Follow Him" and "My Guy" (changed to "My God") with a new Gospel flair.  None of it really makes sense, as it's impossible to believe that a few sessions could turn tone-deaf amateurs into singers of professional quality, not to mention the fact that somehow an octogenarian piano player can not only play rhythm and blues as if she's done it for decades, but also is able to get the piano to play all of the other instruments we hear accompany it when the ladies perform to a crowd. 

While I do consider Sister Act to be a bad film when judged with a critical eye, those prone to being charmed by the sights and sounds of singing nuns aren't likely to care, as evidenced by box office receipts and video rentals.  Whoopi is a bit miscast as a mobster's mistress (originally written for Bette Midler, who pulled out of the project long before production began), as well as a professional singer (not only can she not sing, but her lip-synching needs improvement).   The screenplay is credited to Joseph Howard, used when Paul Rudnick wanted his name removed after several studio-speared rewrites.  What's left is contrived, predictable and corny, which makes it perfect for viewing when you want innocuous filler that offers up a handful of cute, catchy scenes.

-- Followed by Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993).    

Qwipster's rating:

2008 Vince Leo