Thursday, May 5, 2011

Change of Habit (1969, William A. Graham)

Elvis Presley's final feature film, 1969's Change of Habit, is a social drama well-intended in word if not deed.  It's a film that speaks very broadly about its present-day hotbed issues like race, but is ultimately cruelest to blacks and Latinos.  It's on one hand a liberal diatribe that wants to confront the positive, social aspects of religion, coherent to a hippie worldview in a way that can only compromise real-world representations of these characters.  It's a film that tries to say a lot of things, not all of which with a great deal of success, but as one "Mary Tyler Moore Show" actor featured in this film says to another "Mary Tyler Moore Show" actor featured in this film in an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", it gets by on a significant amount of spunk.

Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair and Jane Elliot play three nuns trained in speech therapy, laboratory sciences and public health (respectively) in a social experiment to live out their faith in everyman clothes to avoid isolating anyone they might come in contact with.  Not in on the ploy is Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis) whose short-handed inner-city clinic seems to treat any sort of physical or psychological issue.  Moore's Sister Michelle is torn when something of a relationship begins to form with Carpenter, and a film that tries to deeply root itself in social issues resorts to sentimental, late-'90s WB-style drama.

Dr. John Carpenter has some questionable ethics of his own.  Though not a conventional musical, the film doesn't want to waste the musical talent and throws Elvis a few numbers including "Rubberneckin'", in which we are introduced to Dr. Carpenter as a girl-watcher.  This theory is proven a few scenes later in which the doctor's charisma plays into a seventeen-year-old girl's ploy to get "examined".  It's all above-board, just not in his or the medical code of ethic's best interest.  Dr. Carpenter appears to cure a young girl of autism using "rage therapy" through the theory of the "Z-process".  Nevermind that by 1971 the process would be completely debunked by further biological and genetic evidence about the nature of autism.  Nevermind that the real-life Dr. Zaslow forfeited his psychological license after injuring a patient through identical tactics.  The methods of cure in the film are most detestable for painting the doctors as heroic while painting the patients as one-dimensional pawns.

The film reminds of John Cassavetes's A Child Is Waiting in that it errs making the plight of the doctor, not his patient, the central focus.  But where Cassavetes has the poise to let the patient be gripping in a triumphant third act, Change of Habit reminds us how easy it is to tread too near Stanley Kramer territory.  The patients are simply objects to overcome, and the solutions come too easily.

Further, the Sisters are secularized for the film's social agenda to the point of disingenuity.  We laugh at their naïvité as they are introduced not knowing how to cross a busy city street, smirk as they crack wise about their judgmental neighbors being "Catholic" but "not Christian," and are supposed to swallow Sister Barbara hiking up the skirt on a strapless number to guilt some ethnic winos into moving her furniture.  In a film that condemns racial discrimination, the Latino stereotype in this scene is unforgivable.  Later Sister Irene is bullied for not being black enough by some militant brothers for the cause.  In a film with a fair amount of white guilt, it really paints its minor ethnic characters in the worst racial stereotype.

The film takes place over two months, and the idea that Sister Michelle would consider giving up the life she has trained for to be with Dr. Elvis says a lot about the film's view of religion.  The sisters are nurses, and they are very successful and helpful in the social work they push, but other than seeing them pray before meals, their faith isn't seen as much more than social work.  The representation of the church is arcane and prejudiced, and it's as if the film is saying there is little of value in religion outside of its social aspect.  Which, I guess, explains how a nun could give it all up for a good-looking man who doesn't share her ideals as "love" (even misguided hippie love) is what a social religion strives toward.  But it rings untrue for the Sisters to "overcome" their Catholicism.

What success this film gleans is attributed mostly to Mary Tyler Moore, whose wholesome persona translates winningly to her character.  The script attempts to have her jab a little too bluntly at times, but they couldn't have cast a more likable actress.  Barbara McNair is strong (if limited) in her role as Sister Irene.  The counterculture nature of the picture works hard to point out that she is a strong, independent, intelligent black woman and, regardless of the film's intention, McNair's performance is reason alone to watch it.

In a film with so much to say, it isn't quite sure how to say it.  Change of Habit is a product of turbulent times with no easy answers.  Sometimes no perceivable answers.  The film leaves us hanging as more than one character faces huge decisions facing their future and the future of the church, and while I'm O.K. with that sort of non-resolution in uncertain times, it seems a little out of line to preach its social commentary so devoutly in other stretches.  But what it does say, it says with such conviction that it is hard to deny.  It's no revelation to help our fellow man, but the film really means it in a non-cynical way amid turbulence.  A bit syrupy, and a bit too even-keeled, Change of Habit merits a recommendation based on its performances and its attitude. -- **½ / four stars

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