Sister Act: Comedy Starring Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith

Right after Whoopi Goldberg’s feature debut, in The Color Purple in 1985, Hollywood’s top agents and producers began looking for properties for the hot new star. Unfortunately, the talented stage comedienne went from one bad project to another–until Ghost, the 1990 comedy-thriller-fantasy that brought her the Supporting Actress Oscar Award.

Sister Act, a star vehicle that could be called “Nun on the Run,” is tailor-made to Goldberg’s specifications, allowing her to display her skills and street-smart wit as a comedienne.

Goldberg plays Deloris, a second-rate Vegas lounge singer, who gets into trouble, when she accidentally witnesses her sleazy mobster lover (Harvey Keitel) murder one of his enemies.

For Deloris’s own protection, a police officer (Bill Nunn) sends her to a convent in San Francisco until a court date is set for her to testify against him. These events happen in the first 20 minutes, which are all exposition and quite flat. However, the real fun begins once Deloris gets to the convent. The free-spirited Deloris is juxtaposed with Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith), a rigid and stern nun. The contrast is schematic yet hilarious.

The best scenes in the movie occur when Deloris is asked to take over the convent’s dreadful choir. To Mother Superior’s dismay, she introduces rock ‘n’ roll to the nuns through updated renditions of popular l960s songs, like “My Guy” (now sung as “My God”) and “I Will Follow Him.”

Screenwriter Joseph Howard borrows quite a bit from The Music Man, the stage and film musical, in which conman Robert Preston enlivens a dormant Iowa town with music. Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing, Three Men and a Little Lady) directs the musical sequences with energy; after a weak start, the film begins to pick up momentum.

The movie raises an interesting idea. Through her music, Deloris transforms the convent from an isolated cloister to a place that’s more relevant and integrated in the community at large. I am not sure that rock ‘n’ roll is the best strategy to modernize a church, but it’s interesting to see a vibrant church that tries to contributes to the quality of life of its worshippers.

Goldberg is surrounded by many talented actresses in supporting roles. It is a pleasure to see such a wide variety of women playing nuns of all ages, personalities, and dispositions. Best of all is Kathy Najimy, who was so good as the costumer in Soapdish. As an overly excited and ebullient nun, she almost walks off with the film.

Sister Act is simple and formulaic, but it works as mass entertainment. It’s the kind of film that makes you laugh while you watch it, but is immediately forgettable as soon as it is over. I am not a proponent of “feel good” movies, but in a summer season marked by big-budget, overly produced violent movies (Lethal Weapon 3, Alien), an hour (or so) of laughter is not to be underestimated.