Writer-director Todd Graff tosses just about everything except the kitchen sink into this would-be foot-stomping crowd-pleaser, but the farrago is less a feel-good celebration than a depressingly flat-footed blend of several stale formulas. Part song-and-dance extravaganza, part “Rocky”-style underdog triumph, part bickering contest between sitcom female rivals, part puppy-love romance, part feeble “Footloose” clone, part Mayberry-inspired goofy ensemble comedy, and even part commentary on the country’s economic ills and childhood illness, “Joyful Noise” is a fractured, disjointed medley of bits and pieces that don’t add up to a remotely satisfying whole.
The focus is on a church choir in a hard-pressed Georgia town that’s competing—once again unsuccessfully—in the eponymous contest against their Detroit nemesis when the beloved Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson), their long-time director, keels over with a fatal heart attack. And when Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) appoints sassy Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) his replacement, it sets off a mini-war with Sparrow’s spitfire widow G.G. (Dolly Parton).
Meanwhile nurse Vi Rose, who’s out-of-work husband Marcus (Jesse L. Jackson) has signed up for another military tour to bring home some cash, is having trouble with her kids. Olivia (Keke Palmer) is being courted by a local tough, and Walter (Dexter Darden) is afflicted by Asperger’s syndrome and struggling to overcome his social awkwardness. Their situation is aggravated when G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) shows up from New York. Sparks immediately fly between him and Olivia, and he takes Walter under his wing, improbably enticing the boy out of his shell with some easy camaraderie. He also pushes the reluctant Vi Rose to modernize the choir’s routines in both content and presentation style.
As if all that weren’t enough, there are weird subplots involving other choir members—the aw-shucks doofus whose dad’s hardware store is going under, and especially the overweight, love-hungry girl who has a one-night fling with another chorister, a guy who promptly dies of a heart attack in her bed (in what’s apparently an epidemic caused by increasing medical costs), leaving her with a rather unflattering reputation. And the tough who was romancing Olivia brings his guitar skills to the choir’s new arrangements, quickly turning into a part of the solution rather than remaining a problem.
All of this represents the corniness that afflicts the movie from beginning to end. There are sporadic tiffs—a brief fight in which Randy and Walter take on the tough guy, a shouting match between Olivia and Vi Rose in a hotel hallway (so loud and shrill that other guests would certainly have complained), and especially a knock-down, drag-’em-out slapstick confrontation between Vi Rose and G.G. in a diner. But in the end everybody kisses and makes up with amazing speed. In fact, all problems can apparently be resolved by one simple act of kindness, be it Walter’s condition, G.G.’s grief, a reputation as a man-killer, or the shattered Hill family unit. By the exuberantly nonsensical finish, the only thing that hasn’t been corrected is the town’s financial woes.
And there’s the music. The movie’s message appears to be that to mount a proper performance, a church choir must turn itself into what amounts to a low-class Vegas casino act. The stuff that the competitors belt out in the big finish—including the number that wins the Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir their long-coveted trophy (a real sign of divine approval, one guesses)—is such trashy exhibitionism that it might serve as an added incentive for a non-believer to skip Sunday services.
It’s unlikely that anybody could have sold this bag of tired goods, but the job is totally beyond this cast and crew. Graff’s script is uninspired, but his clumsy direction does it no favors; virtually every scene is poorly staged, and the whole is flabbily edited (by Kathryn Himoff). For a movie about music, “Joyful Noise” has no rhythm.
But that lack is also due to the fact that there’s no real acting going on, except for the reliable laid-back Vance and Martin, who sense that underplaying is the only way to go. One doesn’t expect much from Parton, who not only looks like an emaciated shadow of her former self (and whose Joan Rivers-like face is cruelly exposed in close-ups), but is encouraged merely to posture and pose as the tart-tongued widow, though she still sings well enough. But surely Latifah’s been around long enough now that she should have found time to take some acting lessons. She recites her lines, but so unconvincingly that she seems as smugly out-of-place as ever; and when she gets to her big rant to Olivia, it’s positively embarrassing.
Everybody else suffers similarly from Graff’s inability to encourage any inner life in the characters. Palmer and Jordan are both of Disney Channel/Nickelodeon caliber, while the lesser players are encouraged to play to the rafters, with deadening effect. Kristofferson smiles amiably in his opening cameo, apparently content in the knowledge that he’ll only be required to come back for a single spectral duet with Parton later on. One feels most sorry for Darden, who’s stuck in an impossible part, but you also have to admit he doesn’t play it convincingly.
With technical credits that are barely competent at best, “Joyful Noise” looks and sounds no better than it plays. When it finally culminates after two hours with a prefabricated stem-winding finale, you may feel like shouting “Hallelujah!”—but not for the reasons Graff intended.