As drag comedies go, "Nuns on the Run" (selected theaters) has some bawdy class--but only because of its casting. Beanpole Eric Idle and boar-stout Robbie Coltrane, poured into nun's habits, make a traffic-stopping pair of female ecclesiastics. Coltrane alone has legs that could halt a charging rhino, prompt a papal bull.
Trapped in a convent-sanctuary with millions in stolen swag and two separate mobs on their tail, they're like bears on their best behavior trying on lingerie. As they mince and genuflect their way through a murderous maze of killers and cross-plots, the wimpled, dimpled boy-o's radiate such nervous irreverence and brash daintiness, they often slide right past their weak, obvious material.
Idle plays Brian Hope, alias Sister Euphemia of the Five Wounds, and Coltrane plays Charlie McManus, alias Sister Inviolata of the Immaculate Conception: two small-time mobsters on the lam after fleecing the mob. Their accidental transvestism deliberately slights any perverse double appeal. They lack the sexiness and panache of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot," the stoic dignity of Cary Grant in "I Was a Male War Bride" or the flirty aggressiveness of Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie."
But Idle and Coltrane are masters of caricature. Idle turns himself into a pop-eyed hysterical spinster; Coltrane goes sly and tartily fat. They generate a certain amount of raw laughter just waddling or tip-toeing across the screen.
Casting them together is a sort of coup. But it's the only one writer-director Jonathan Lynn has. "Nuns on the Run" is like its title: half-funny, mechanical, a little crude. Lynn is a master of neither slapstick nor badinage. He uses only the most raw, blatant ideas: putting his spurious nuns in the girls' shower room; making "Euphemia" the target of randy Father Seamus (Tom Hickey), a watery-eyed priest with wandering hands; having them clamber through windows and tumble into a nun's bed--a drunken nun, at that.
The movie is like a kid who's gotten license to be naughty in public. It comes on, smirks, does its number and then tries to get off fast. The plot is pure borrowed "Some Like It Hot": two buddies forced into a drag act to hide out from rampaging killers. But these buddies aren't innocents. They're gangsters themselves, trying to pull a double-cross. And the nuns aren't innocents either; they act like gangsters too.
As the butch rococo Sister Superior, Janet Suzman, the film's best actress, spits off her sentences with grande-dame grandeur. The other nuns are equally hard-case: drunks and gamblers or crotchety old scolds. The convent has no spirit. These aren't the dotty, dithery, funny-ethereal nuns you might expect from a good British comedy: Ronald Searle-type nuns with elongated, seraphic expressions, P.G. Wodehouse comic cranks or political schemers out of Tom Sharpe. They aren't even the comic-nasty thug-nuns Monty Python might have given us.
They're just a sitcom obstacle course for the two buddies-on-the-run: locking up their money, losing the key, forcing them to teach religious class. The Catholic-school students look like Penthouse Pets wheeled in and out for a shower-room pictorial. And poor Camille Coduri as "Faith," the film's cocktail waitress heroine, is given a case of allegedly comic myopia that has her bumping into lampposts, dropping drinks and failing to recognize her lover at crucial plot points. Faith is Hope's girlfriend. Was Charlie, in a previous draft, called Charity? Or Sister Charity?
The conception lacks tension and Lynn's satire on Catholicism lacks bite. Even the funniest idea, Sister Charlie's sudden obsession with the dogma he learned as a boy, works mostly because of Coltrane's bumptious, boisterous delivery.
Lynn is a TV comedy writer--his "Yes, Prime Minister" is said, in the press book, to be "Margaret Thatcher's favorite TV show"--and his writing has a TV sketch ephemerality. When he starts juggling plot complications, they're so smooth, slick and derivative, it's sometimes hard to notice that there are no balls in the air.
Maybe that's the real miracle. "Nuns on the Run" (rated PG-13 despite bawdy humor, nudity and irreverence) bounces along with a certain breezy extroversion, but its comic notions are as thin as Communion wafers. Even with all the hope and charity in the world, you have to take its humor mostly on faith.