Sister Act You probably won't fall over in shock if I tell you that Sister Act , the new Disney comedy in which Whoopi Goldberg hides out… Sister Act You probably won't fall over in shock if I tell you that Sister Act , the new Disney comedy in which Whoopi Goldberg hides out… PG Comedy Musical Whoopi Goldberg Kathy Najimy Mary Wickes Harvey Keitel Kathy Najimy Bill Nunn Maggie Smith Buena Vista Pictures
Movie Review

Sister Act (1992)

MPAA Rating: PG

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Details Rated: PG; Genres: Comedy, Musical; With: Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes; Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures

You probably won't fall over in shock if I tell you that Sister Act, the new Disney comedy in which Whoopi Goldberg hides out from the mob by posing as a nun, is likely to become a very big hit. I mean, Whoopi Goldberg in a nunnery — how could that miss? No, the surprise is that Sister Act will probably be an early-summer smash not because it's so sidesplittingly funny (there's a smattering of good lines, most of them delivered by a first-rate cast of supporting nuns) but because it's a new-style feel-good movie.

Goldberg gets to drop a few tasty anticlerical barbs, but then she becomes the film's comic anchor — in effect, the straight woman. She's appointed choir leader, and she transforms a collection of largely ancient Carmelite sisters who haven't carried a tune in 50 years into a soulful, rockin' chorus. The first time they do one of their revved-up numbers, it's sort of a joke — you know, the old lady at the piano flashes a mean look of pleasure and, as they used to say, gets down. But mostly we're meant to cheer with enthusiasm. The movie is a nuns-are-people-too heart-warmer posing as an irreverent farce.

What Sister Act doesn't do, almost perversely, is let Whoopi Goldberg cut loose. Her face framed by a hefty Chaka Khan wedge, she plays Deloris, the leader of an ersatz-Supremes girl group that performs exuberantly tacky Motown covers at a Reno lounge. When Deloris inadvertently witnesses a murder committed by her mobster boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) — just what she's doing with this snaky thug isn't given a lot of explanation — she is placed in a temporary witness-protection program and sent to the last location anyone would think to look for her: an inner-city convent. As it happens, that's also the last place Deloris would want to be.

Goldberg's voice — a flat, gravelly drone of skepticism — is a great comic instrument. Confronted with her new bedroom, a hellacious garret that, to her amazement, doesn't even have a phone, she hits hilarious tones of incredulity; she simply can't believe anyone would live like this.

Sister Act has a one-joke plot and crummy production values (it's shot in garish TV close-up), yet you could say the same thing about most of the Marx Brothers movies. The film's threadbare cheesiness wouldn't matter a lick if Goldberg had simply been allowed to run wild the way she did in Ghost, barking out lines with the ace timing and bombs-away cynicism of a female Groucho. Instead, after a few gags, she is turned into a saintly den mother.

The nuns, on the other hand, get you giggling. There are two breakout stars. As the rotund, drop-dead-cheerful Sister Mary Patrick, Kathy Najimy, with her cringing smile, hits one goony high after another. What an overactive sex drive is to some people, wide-eyed junior-high-schoolish enthusiasm is to Sister Mary Patrick — she's like a Girl Scout on uppers. A joke in which she dances like a hellion to pop music is repeated once too often, but it's a great gag nonetheless: The rocking, thrusting movements of her Maytag-shaped body aren't just silly, they're absurdly right.

As Sister Mary Lazarus, the veteran comic Mary Wickes has a face so stern and pious she might have stepped out of The Sound of Music. Every time she opens her mouth, though, a deadpan secularism comes out. Wickes incarnates what's appealing about these nuns — that beneath their saintly manners and withered flesh, they're terrifically alive. I wish Sister Act were wittier, less predictable. The movie is a Disneyfied contradiction: a lapsed-Catholic comedy without a whiff of true blasphemy. Still, on its own fluffy terms, it's pleasant nunsense. B-

Originally posted May 29, 1992 Published in issue #120 May 29, 1992 Order article reprints

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