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Movie Review : ‘Act 2’: Singing Nuns Reach for High Notes

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The original “Sister Act” was the most unexpected of blockbusters. Its director had no special comedy reputation, its dissatisfied writer opted for a pseudonym, and its star was not exactly bursting with confidence in the project. So much for the collective wisdom of Hollywood.

But while the industry’s sagacity may be open to question, Hollywood can’t be accused of a reluctance to pounce on success and attempt to duplicate it. So the appearance of “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” (citywide) was only a matter of time, and that time is now.

Returning to the screen, then, is that celebrated nun on the run, Deloris Van Cartier, otherwise known as Sister Mary Clarence and stylishly played by Whoopi Goldberg. Back as well are the other comedic convent dwellers, specifically bouncy Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy), feisty Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes), shy Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena) and everyone’s favorite Mother Superior (Maggie Smith).

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But like participants in a reunion who find they no longer have anything to say to one another, these sisters have shown up without being given very much to do. Even by sequel standards, a minimal amount of creativity has gone into “Sister Act 2,” and not even the talents of its cast, including several likable young people, can compensate for this thrown-together feeling.

Perhaps realizing the difficulty of recapturing the riotous spirit of the original, director Bill Duke and Disney executives have opted for a warm-hearted, uplifting tone with this picture. The “Three Men and a Baby” screenwriting team of James Orr and Jim Cruickshank was brought in to soften and brighten Judi Ann Mason’s script about a Crenshaw High School music teacher named Iris Stevenson that had been written without any notion of its becoming part of the “Sister Act” juggernaut.

Deloris is first glimpsed back where she began, performing in Las Vegas, except now her fame has made her a headliner. She is almost immediately reunited with the three sisters, who order milk all around and deliver a message from a desperate Mother Superior requesting her immediate presence in San Francisco.

It seems the sisters have been teaching at St. Francis High, a tough urban parochial school located in “a tired, worn, despairing community” and the kids have not exactly been paying attention. Who better than Deloris, once she is safely back in convent garb, to get the young people to come around?

Deloris, amazingly enough, readily agrees, and is assigned to the music class, which the kids involved consider “a bird,” the kind of course where you only have to show up to fly right through to a passing grade.

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Though they trade rap lyrics and wear hip-hop clothes, these nominal troublemakers are the kind of clean-cut and well-scrubbed delinquents not found outside the precincts of the Disney Channel. Their idea of a prank is not brandishing an Uzi but putting glue on Sister Mary Clarence’s chair, and when one of their number falls asleep in class, he’s not nodding out on drugs but exhausted from overwork.

While the fleeing from the Mafia situation of the original “Sister Act” may not have been more realistic than this film’s notion of turning rowdy teens into a competitive choir, it was brought to the screen with an energy that has been lost the second time around.

Here the focus is on teaching good lessons, on letting the kids know that “if you want to be somebody, you better wake up and pay attention.” And star Goldberg, who can be as funny as anyone if she so chooses, opts instead to spend most of her time being benevolent, inspirational and not very involving.

When the crises in this film do come, things like a bureaucratic threat to close the school and a parent who insists on keeping an ace singer out of the choir, they are both mild and visible a mile off. Too feeble to work up any animus against, “Sister Act 2" has no more than a family resemblance to its predecessor, and that is not nearly enough.

‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’

Whoopi Goldberg: Deloris Kathy Najimy: Sister Mary Patrick Barnard Hughes: Father Maurice Mary Wickes: Sister Mary Lazarus James Coburn: Mr. Crisp

A Scott Rudin/Dawn Steel production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Bill Duke. Producers Dawn Steel, Scott Rudin. Executive producers Laurence Mark, Mario Iscovich. Screenplay James Orr & Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason. Cinematographer Oliver Wood. Editors John Carter, Pem Herring, Stuart Pappe. Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design John De Cuir, Jr. Art director Louis M. Mann. Set decorator Bruce Gibeson. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG for “some mild language.” Times guidelines: Language is milder than most real teen-agers use.


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