Archive Review: Sister Act (1992)

When you watch a film like “Sister Act” you have to wonder how it’s possible Whoopi Goldberg has more different awards (Oscar, Tony, daytime Emmy) than most actors. Quite simply, Goldberg always seems to find warm and genial moments. Although her transformation from the frantic, angry and loud Deloris to that of the inspiring nun Sister Mary Clarence is far from gradual, the metamorphosis is profound and along withs some fun music, keeps “Sister Act” from being a tremendous waste.

Deloris is a doo-wop singer playing the mistress to a mob boss (Harvey Keitel) when she witnesses a murder and her man tries to whack her. After going to the police, she’s shipped from Reno to San Francisco as part of witness protection. The police lieutenant decides a convent would be the safest place for her to hide, so she becomes a “nun” at St. Catherine’s where her heretical ways begin to rub off on the other nuns much to the dismay of mother superior (Maggie Smith).

Now, as Sister Mary Clarence, she helps (and with surprising speed) turn around the choir and turn them into gospel singers. Unfortunately, this premise is not nurtured nearly as carefully as it ought to be by screenwriter Joseph Howard, which might explain why his only two film credits are this film and its sequel. The atonal choir magically sings with a few quick tips, she becomes choir director without much ado and none of the sisters resist the gospel/doo-wop flair, they just start singing one of the hymns that way out of nowhere. The music is catch and fun and clever, but the potential is wasted. “Sister Act” is a well-known movie, but think of what it could’ve been with so more care.

The mob element is a joke. If only it stayed out of the story for a longer period of time and let the plot focus on the church just a bit longer and Sister Mary Clarence’s radical new changes. Making “Sister Act” a movie musical instead of having three choir performances total in the run time would’ve made a world of difference. Those few songs alone are enough to convince you you’re enjoying yourself. Without them, “Sister Act” would become a scatter- brained cross-up between religion and the mob and could rank among the most ridiculous films ever made.

In reflection, it’s amazing how crucial the Whoopi element is to this movie. She becomes one of the more likable mother hen figures after she finally drops the mean and sassy comedian act. There are a handful of decent nun jokes, but the human factor that Whoopi adds in the second half keeps the film alive. The way Sisters Mary Patrick and Mary Robert gravitate toward her is one of the few organic components of the movie.

Despite barely giving itself time to cook, “Sister Act” stays memorable through the music and through Whoopi.

3/5 Stars

Sister Act (1992)
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Written by Joseph Howard
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Harvey Keitel


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