Whoopi Goldberg is about all that 'Sister Act' has, and that's enough

May 29, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Whoopi Goldberg could probably light the state of Alaska in December all by her lonesome. She'd melt the glaciers, wake the bears, cause the salmon and the teen-agers to spawn. And she '' lights up the otherwise pallid "Sister Act" just as ferociously.

This movie is really a Whoopi-cushion. Primitive, unsophisticated, utterly predictable, it simply offers a pretext for Whoopi magic, and it's at its worst when it's laboring wheezily to set its star up. The plot mechanics desperately need a lube job.

Whoopi plays a slightly tarnished Reno lounge singer named Deloris Von Cartier, with a big voice, tall hair and a wardrobe that's a nova of glitter, sequin and joyous bad taste; she's a clone of a Xerox of a fax of a photo of a sketch of Diana Ross, just barely riding a wave of Motown nostalgia to cling to a gig in the slums of showbiz. In the opening moments we see her singing her guts out before three or four late-afternoon gamblers, supported by two out-of-key backup singers. The Supremes they are not. But her real job is to play main squeeze to Mafioso Harvey Keitel; this position becomes untenable when she walks in as he and his two henchmen rub out an informer. After the obligatory escape through the kitchen, she makes a connection with the cops, who stash her in a decaying convent in San Francisco until she can testify against Keitel.

For a bit, the movie traffics in lame fish-out-of-water shtick, as the worldly, earthy Whoopi tries to meld with the timorous, cloistered sisters, who languish under the rigid control of Mother Superior Maggie Smith. That wacky Whoopi! Whatta card! She's always up to one darn thing or another, like sneaking into a biker bar or noting aloud that the food is pretty medieval.

Yet when -- again by contrivances as wheezy as they are ancient -- it comes to pass that Whoopi inherits the job of choir leader, a miracle occurs; it's almost like Thomas Becket's appointment to the Archbishophood of Canterbury, where the former wastrel found his true calling. The single best scene in the film -- and it's one of those flak-bursts of pleasure so intense it makes you a believer -- watches as Whoopi makes the Sisters feel the music; she makes us feel it too, and I can't think of a scene that's so infused with a love of music as intense.

Of course, the subtext is soul and in some ways the film might be regarded as an elaborate pun on that word: soul, meaning the passionate emotional connection to musical expression that runs through traditionally black musical vernacular, and soul, meaning the ethereal love of God that is at the heart of the religious experience. The movie understands how close these two ecstasies are, and how easily bridged is the gap.

Thus when Whoopi gives the choir a repertoire of Motown hits mostly about the love of a good man -- their guy -- except that the him they love is always Him, the movie really ticks. The director, Emilio Antonio, has a gift for musical sequences that pick up a picture and move it several dozen levels up the evolutionary scale: his big hit was "Dirty Dancing," which showed the same amazing grace. This movie might be called "Clean Singing."

As for the rest, it's strictly dreary and strictly by the numbers. It even features a second chase through the kitchen; why does Hollywood like to watch pots get shot so much?

'Sister Act'

'Sister Act' Starring Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith.

Directed by Emilio Ardolino.

Released by Touchstone.

Rated PG.

***

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