Two trips to the convent is one too many. Suffering a bad case of sequelitis, this “Sister Act” follow-up is too formulaic and frequently pauses to sermonize at the expense of entertaining. Although there is clearly a built-in audience eager to clap along, pic lacks the charm and buoyancy that made the first “Act” a mass-appeal hit, and a heavenly opening B.O. glow could fade quickly as the holiday sweepstakes wear on.
“Back in the Habit” is a clever subhead but also truer than intended, as “Act 2” habitually rehashes elements from the original without its inspiration.
The major shift involves the setting — a run-down high school as opposed to a decrepit convent, a milieu designed to allow the filmmakers to push an agenda counseling youths to stay in school, which would be fabulous if this were a public service announcement and not a movie.
The action opens with Deloris (Whoopi Goldberg) headlining in Vegas and rattling off a medley that, by itself, probably pushed the music-rights budget into the stratosphere. Almost immediately, however, she’s doing the nun thing again at the request of the Mother Superior (Maggie Smith), who is having a hard time reaching her young flock.
Unfortunately, having Deloris shack up with the nuns voluntarily limits the comedic possibilities, and the lone menace this time around is rather pallid, coming in the form of an officious administrator (James Coburn) intent on closing the school.
Deloris pulls her magic act again, turning the kids into a choir in a nebulous effort to save good old St. Francis. The strategy takes shape, in fact, only after the nuns enter the kids in an all-state music competition — which is about as suspenseful as having the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl — assuming that a victory will keep the school open.
While all that high-spirited teenage flesh may attract a younger demographic, director Bill Duke (“A Rage in Harlem”) and writers James Orr, Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason devote themselves to reaching that segment instead of moving the story along.
The action gets bogged down, for example, in a subplot involving the talented Rita (impressive newcomer Lauryn Hill), whose mother (Sheryl Lee Ralph) objects to her involvement with the choir, pushing her to focus on more tangible goals.
Rita’s story ends up merely creating a long lull during the film’s soft midsection. Elements also seem to come from sources like “Fame” and “To Sir With Love” (“To Sister With Love”?) but amount to little more than a 1950s musical where the kids put on a show, instead set against a pretentious socially conscious 1990s backdrop.
Terrific as she was the first time around, Goldberg seems to mail in this performance, with laughs generated mostly by the mirthful Kathy Najimy and dour Mary Wickes. Even so, seeing nuns groove-rap-break dance has become a bit tiresome, and Duke and company go to that well too often.
Tech credits hit a flat note as well, with nothing magical about the choreography, and awkward editing that attempts to meld the subplots.
“Sister Act 2” accents the fact that certain films don’t readily lend themselves to sequels. The audience may ultimately disagree, but creatively, at least, it seems time to break this habit.