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Down From the Shelf ~ Sister Act

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a worldly singer witnesses a mob crime, the police hide her as a nun in a traditional convent where she has trouble fitting in.

Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena, Mary Wickes, Harvey Keitel

Director: Emile Ardolino

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score:  (8/10)

Review:  Two things that not everyone may know about Sister Act:

1)       It was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler

2)      Whoopi Goldberg HATED making the film and was offered quite a sum to return for its sequel a little over a year later.

It’s interesting to note these facts while taking in the film on the eve of it’s 20th anniversary (I remember seeing it at the Yorktown 3 in Edina…anyone….anyone?) because if Goldberg isn’t having fun, you can’t tell.  As much as I love Midler I can’t see this film working as well as it does with her in Goldberg’s part.  True, after Midler left the project a number of re-writes took place to craft it into something that plays on Goldberg’s strengths but even without the rewrites Goldberg makes this work in a way that I don’t think Midler could have.

Sister Act remains one of those movies (for me, at least) that never, ever gets old.  I find myself laughing just as much now as I did when I first saw the film with its winning combination of good hearted humor and easy going performances.  It’s one of the most harmless films outside of the cartoon canon and it’s only the real grump that wouldn’t crack a smile at one point or another.

As second rate lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, Goldberg was at the peak of her popularity when the movie was released.  Two years after winning an Oscar for Ghost this was her first leading role that proved her box office mettle.   Sadly,  every movie released after wouldn’t measure up to the success of this outing but at the time of its release it etched her name on the A-list for a time. 

I usually catch this movie once a year and maybe it’s my newfound critical eye but the film seemed much breezier on a recent viewing.  After witnessing a murder involving her mob boss boyfriend, Deloris’ is witness protection-ed into the guise of Sister Mary Clarence as a downtown convent.  This journey seems to come quickly and before we know it she’s become the choir master to a seemingly tone deaf gaggle of nuns.  I love a good nun movie (have you seen Nuns on the Run?  You should.) and the nuns are out in full force here. 

The movie does take several potshots at nuns and the Catholic Church but they’re all good natured and in the spirit of fun.  The film isn’t out to take any religious prisoners and skates by on charm and an energetic supporting cast for Goldberg.

Smith was already a two-time Oscar winner and may have been an eyebrow raising choice for the stern Mother Superior in a screwball American comedy.  She brings her indefatigable humor to her role and really creates some comedic sparks with Goldberg.  Both actresses play well off each other and their relationship is a key element to the film’s success. 

Three other nuns also play a role in Goldberg’s universe and they run the age gamut.  Veteran actress Wickes is put to good use as a spry nun that’s seen it all…the film already had a tsk-tsk taskmaster in the Mother Superior so Wickes plays her role with a nice balance of grandmotherly irascibility.  Newcomer Makkena fits in nicely as the churchmouse-y Sister Mary Robert though I still find it crazy that her voice was dubbed.  Could they not find someone that could do the role and sing?  Najimy has always been a scene stealer and she nearly steals the film away from Goldberg with her boisterous and beaming Sister Mary Patrick.  All three women (plus the other chorines) nicely support our star like the good nuns they are playing.

As choir master, Deloris works her magic and creates a sound that literally brings in people off the street in the skid row-esque neighborhood the convent/church is housed on.  The nuns going out into the community is one of several musical montages and just seeing the 90’s attire alone creates major laughs.  Before you know it the church is packing them in and the choir is gaining national attention from the Pope (how long Deloris has been at the church is one of those fuzzier forgotten parts of the script).  With the added attention from the press comes danger from the mob and…well…it doesn’t really matter because we all know how it’s going to turn out.

Dogged by critics when it first was released, Sister Act rose to be a box office smash and inspired a sequel just a tad over a year later.  Some feel the sequel was superior but I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for the original.  The music still works wonderfully with the story and the laughs continue to land.  Ardolino (Dirty Dancing, Chances Are) works wonders with the piece and gives it a sheen that is heaven sent.  It’s not complicated, it’s not boring…it’s a fine example of a movie capitalizing on the talent and hand and riding that to success.

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