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Change of Habit

Director:  William A. Graham

US - 1969



Elvis plays Dr. John Carpenter, a doctor at a free clinic in the ghetto (cue chorus:  “In the ghett-o-o-o!”).  He’s a good man, but life in the crazy city has made him somewhat cynical.  Naturally, when three fresh-faced young women arrive looking to volunteer as nurses, he’s a bit skeptical (at one point even suggesting that they should become housewives).  Though it takes some convincing, Carpenter finally caves and agrees to place the women on his staff (which could have a whole different connotation if this was an Elvis beach movie).

What the good doctor doesn’t know, however, is that his three new nurses are really nuns incognito.  Why in disguise, you ask?  Because they want to establish themselves first as women, then as nuns.  Granted, this makes little sense, but it’s essential both to the plot as well as the establishment of dramatic tension, so let’s just disregard anything that may or may not pertain to logic, shall we? 

Landing the job turns out to be merely the first of many obstacles for our Holy Heroines.  Not only do they have to deal with their skeptical (yet loveable) new boss, but they must also contend with a pair of nosy neighbors and an ornery priest determined to expose their lives of wanton debauchery.  Of course, when working at a free clinic in a questionable neighborhood, one must expect to be in constant contact with a variety of undesirables:  Rapists, robbers, loan sharks, and worst of all, cranky convenience store clerks.

Sister Michelle, however, has an even bigger problem.  Despite Dr. Carpenter’s penchant for being pushy, sexist and arrogant, she’s starting to fall for the big lug.  This, of course, can complicate an already-complicated work environment.  That, and it also goes against the whole “being a nun” thing.  But through hard work, diligence, and a couple swingin’ songs, Elvis Presley and his band of naughty nurse-nuns will somehow manage to persevere.

Right off the bat, let me say that Change of Habit is not a good film.  In fact, it’s quite bad.   For lack of a better term, the movie is simply too big for its britches (that, and I just like saying the word “britches”).  Change of Habit attempts to tackle several serious social issues-which is actually rather refreshing, considering this is an Elvis movie-but it does so in a marvelously incompetent fashion. 

Rape isn’t the only issue examined under Elvis’ social microscope-they also tackle such lofty topics as black pride, feminism, abortion, and obviously, religion-but nothing could possibly live up to the idiocy displayed in their portrayal of a rapist.

Julio Hernandez is presented as a young man with an extensive string of social problems.  He also suffers from a speech impediment.  Julio is on a path to self-destruction; hilariously illustrated in a stirring scene where Julio picks up a pair of scissors in Elvis’ office and proclaims that he feels like a big man when holding a weapon.  Later, after it appears that Julio might finally come around, he instead has a run-in with the local priest (a misunderstanding where Julio was trying to return something that was stolen from the church, but is mistaken as a thief).  It’s all downhill from there. 

Looking to lash out at the system he feels betrayed him, Julio attempts to rape Sister Michelle (fortunately, Elvis is there to save the day.  He saves lives, rocks out and kicks ass!).  Julio is arrested, and is later reported as “making progress” at a local mental institution.  First off, the character is a by-the-book stereotype.  I mean, “Julio Hernandez”?  Come on!  Secondly, Elvis, at one point, eludes that Julio has a problem that Sister Michelle may not want to discover.  Wouldn’t the threat of rape justify a friendly warning?  Of course, then it couldn’t be used as a dramatic plot device!   

Let’s give a little credit where it’s due: I applaud Elvis for tackling a more complicated role.  He is, at the very least, a credible actor.  He is also undeniably charismatic.  If given the right vehicle, I honestly believe that Elvis could have taken the ball and ran with it.  Unfortunately, Change of Habit is not such a vehicle.

It tries to be a serious drama, but at the same time, sprinkle in a little bit of the music and tomfoolery that fans of Elvis’ movies expect.  Combining genres takes a skilled hand.  It’s that same skilled hand that’s missing in Change of Habit.  The drama is not only laughable, but in some parts, actually offensive.  And though the humor is par for the course in terms of Elvis’ films, let’s just consider for a moment the level of humor of which we speak.  I have yet to see an Elvis comedy that I would consider a “laff-riot”.  Deplorable social drama aside, the biggest crime is the middling songs (which range from the mediocre (“Let Us Pray”) to the downright awful (“Have a Happy”).  I mean, this is an Elvis movie.  At least try to get the music right!

This is not to say that Change of Habit isn’t worth checking out.  The film is actually quite entertaining (just not for the reasons the filmmakers intended).  Highlights include:

-- Elvis’ account of two former nurses being raped, the punch line being:  One incident was actually against the nurse’s will!  

                 A nun dressing like a tramp in order to persuade the local thugs to help move furniture into her apartment.

--  A bewildering collage of images mixing Elvis, Mary and a crucified Jesus.  

Elvis curing autism by simply holding the child in his arms and telling her that he loves her (while she kicks and screams in protest).

-- Two black guys accosting a black nun in an attempt to ensure that she’s “keeping it real.”

Of course, these are merely a few highlights of a full hour and a half of bad movie goodness.  Change of Habit may not be brilliant cinema, but it is fascinating nonetheless.


-- Copyright 2004, J. Bannerman



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