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-