Part-Time Review: Sister Act (1992)


Overall Grade: B+

Sister Act was a surprise comedy hit in 1992 and one of my favorite VHS films as a young kid; I watching and re-watched those musical numbers over and over. It's an extremely easy to watch comedy featuring memorable musical numbers and a career best performance from Whoopi Goldberg. For anyone growing up at the time of this review in 2023 it might be hard to think about Whoopi helming a comedy musical since she has become more of a political figure on The View in her later years. In 1992 however, Whoopi was at the height of her Hollywood powers coming off a thriving stand-up comedy routine and an Oscar winning performance in Ghost two years earlier. I think Sister Act represents the peak of her film career, headlining a real comedy blockbuster, with an iconic comedic performance.

In Sister Act, Whoopi plays a Reno singer named Deloris doing montages of R&B and Motown songs. Life’s not going well as her singing act gets little notice from the Casino patrons and her gangster boyfriend Vince (Harvey Keitel) won’t leave his wife. To make things worse, Deloris accidentally witnesses said boyfriend execute someone and she is forced to run to the cops. The cops, wanting to make a slam-dunk case against a big gangster, convince Deloris to hide out in the last place Vince would look for her, a San Francisco convent as a nun. The convent is run by the Mother Superior, which is my first experience with the great actress Maggie Smith and her ability to play a cold and stiff character that’s still able to garner great empathy and show intelligence and warmth. This resulting change in life for Deloris, ahem Sister Mary Clarence now, provides lots of opportunities for some fish out of water comedy bits. Whoopi really shines here, bringing her privileged lounge singer attitude to prayer, dinner, convent work, and fellowship with the other sisters. Two other nuns get shining supporting turns here, Kathy Najimy as Sister Mary Patrick and Wendy Makkena as Sister Mary Roberts (who I had a big crush on as a kid). The two nuns welcome Mary Clarence with understanding and patience. Their curiosity and empathy for her differences eventually work to soothe Mary Clarence’s difficulty with her temporary nun life. 

If this was just a fish out of water comedy with Goldberg adjusting to convent life then it would still be a good comedy. However, the film takes its characters and premise seriously, giving the convent and its inhabitants time to feel like a real place and filled with real human beings. Additionally, about halfway through the film, there’s a nice little genre twist as Mother Superior tasks Mary Clarence with singing in the church’s horrible choir. It’s not long before Mary Clarence takes charge of the choir and shapes them up into a better singing group, adding a bit of her Reno/Motown glamour to their repertoire in the meantime. When the newly reformed choir performs “Hail Holy Queen” for the first time in a church service it's just magic. It also happens to be one of my favorite musical numbers of all-time. 

The performance begins by singing through the song just as a traditional choir would and the impressed priest and sisters in the pews give their nodding approval of the sudden change in quality. Then Whoopi, who is up on stage conducting the group, motions for a the girls to kick into the upbeat and poppy second rendition of the song. The women's choir begin to clap, sway, and sing with such happiness that it becomes infectious to the viewer. The camera zooms around the church stage and choir while each of our main side characters get their own little moments in the song to match their natures: older Sister Mary Lazarus who Whoopi took the reins from gets her own little fun run in the song, Sister Mary Patrick gets a bubbly and joyful beat, and in my favorite little bit, Sister Mary Robert gets to let her small and shy frame showcase her power vocals to her own surprise. As they hit the final run, Whoopi, who has begun unlocking the true potential of all these women, is conducting with such verve, attitude, and physical gyration that it’s hard not to watch without a giant smile on your face. The rocking music makes its way into the streets and begins to bring in people to the empty pews. 

The entire musical number showcases the heart of the film so well – Deloris’ musical talents being used to help raise up others and bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t darken the door of a church. The “Reno” style music brings Deloris into conflict with Mother Superior of course, but thankfully this isn’t played as hard as it could since the movie really isn’t deep enough to genuinely handle a theological discussion of what’s appropriate for worship music.  Thankfully and wisely, the argument becomes more a vehicle for the theme of the sisters getting out of the convent walls and connecting with the people they are meant to minister to. It's a legitimate concern though that the story largely ignores the content of the religious music and its intent. It's a less of a problem for this film since they have painted all of the sisters as earnest and rightly motivated in their vows, but it becomes a serious issue in the sequel with students who aren't so committed to a Christian life; but I digress.

The last act of the film is meant to climax with a rocking choir performance, led by Mary Clarence, in front of the visiting Pope. Unfortunately, Deloris is discovered by her gangster boyfriend, kidnapped, and brought back to Reno to be killed before she testifies. The rest of the nuns, despite learning of Mary Clarence's subterfuge, band together and head to Reno to rescue Deloris. The police follow close behind and after a fun little chase sequence through Reno casinos, premised on the entire idea that a group of nuns in casinos is funny and they are kinda right, ends with Maggie Smith's Mother Superior giving a heartfelt plea that Deloris has changed and become a loving nun. Once rescued by the police, Deloris heads back to the convent with the rest of the nuns for the final musical performance of "I Will Follow Him" (meaning God in this rendition) in front of the Pope. 

It's a bit difficult to point to any one sequence in the film as a standout comedy moment; this isn't a film of gut busting set pieces or one-liners (though there are memorable funny lines). The best way I can describe the joy of Sister Act is that it's optimism and positivity makes it so easy to watch and re-watch. It would be easy to strawman the Catholic setting, or take constant shots at the nuns, but that's not the kind of film it is. It's an accessible story based on a funny premise, filled up with diverse/ likeable characters, an earnest theme, surprisingly great musical numbers, and a star comedic performance from Whoopi Goldberg. These kind of likeable comedies are pretty rare and should be celebrated and remembered. Give it a view if you've never seen it before.

Overall Grade: B+