Nasty Habits tries too hard to be a Nixonian allegory set in a pseudo-convent, forcing its plot parallels onto places they don't belong.
Nasty Habits transfers the details of the Watergate scandal into a Philadelphia convent, with Glenda Jackson playing the Nixon role of an icy abbess who secretly tapes everyone. As a satire of Watergate, it feels pointless and cumbersome; it might work better as a satire of the Church by implying that all hierarchies of power can use similar methods. The movie at first feels like such a takedown; it opens by showing the nuns drinking, smoking, swearing, and fornicating with Jesuits. Then, however, the screenplay throws in some exposition between a monsignor in Rome (Eli Wallach) and his “PR priest” (Jerry Stiller) in which they explain that this convent isn’t really an official part of the Catholic Church but some bizarre fabricated reactionary order that doesn’t recognize the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and they may end up having to correct it or disown it. So there goes that interpretation.
They even explain that this Philadelphia order is an off-shoot from one in Crewe, England, because the film is based on Muriel Spark’s novel The Abbess of Crewe, but why bother? So much of the film induces this sense of “why bother”. Why bother to have two seminarians “break in” to the abbey to steal one troublesome nun’s love letters, which she keeps in an unlocked box in a public place, and have them come back the next day to be caught? Couldn’t any senior nun have taken the letters? Ah, but it’s all necessary to parallel Watergate. When your allegory takes precedence over common sense in your main story, you’re in trouble.