As comedy formulas go, the fish-out-of-water story — from Chaplin’s Gold Rush to Joe Pesci’s My Cousin Vinny — has to be the most overworked. But that doesn’t discourage the makers of Sister Act, which puts Whoopi Goldberg’s Deloris Von Cartier — a bawdy Reno lounge singer who specializes in girl-group hits of the Sixties — in a convent. After watching her married Mafioso lover Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel) cold-bloodedly rub out a stoolie, Deloris takes shelter with the holy women until she can testify against him. Disguised as a nun, this bad sister finds her good side in predictably trite and sentimental ways.
The contrived script, credited to Joseph Howard, smacks of desperate rewrites. The actors supply the grace notes. Goldberg is memorably funny instilling soul into a choir of novices. When director Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing) shows them rock the church with the 1963 hit “I Will Follow Him,” the result is inspired nunsense until repetition (“My Guy” becomes “My God”) kills the novelty.
Deloris also brings out the hidden gifts of shy Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makenna) and a human smile button named Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy). Najimy, best known for her stage work in The Kathy and Mo Show, may have to do penance for scene stealing; she’s a comic wonder. It’s also classy to cast the great Maggie Smith as the tartly disapproving Mother Superior, the only nun who knows Deloris’s true identity and is properly horrified at what’s got into the habit. But for stranding these talents in a one-gag movie that wears thin somewhere between the first choir practice and the second chase, the filmmakers should say a sincere Act of Contrition.