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It's hard to imagine a film like Joyful Noise (PG-13) could have gotten a green light before the success of the television show Glee. Just as in Fox's teen musical hit, storylines are introduced with a jarring lack of development; once introduced, they're either resolved too quickly or forgotten altogether; and most of the dialogue consists of banal one-liners. Even its central conflict is the same-whether or not a misfit choir will win at regionals.
However, like its much sleazier TV counterpart, Joyful Noise deserves praise for its smashing musical productions, almost all of which (as an added bonus for Christian audiences) happen to be gospel songs. From its high-energy opening number "Not Enough Love" to Queen Latifah's simple solo, "Jesus Fix Me," almost all of the numbers are affecting. The problem is that director and screenwriter Todd Graff appears to have spent all his effort on these scenes, forgetting about the movie surrounding them.
Ostensibly, the plot concerns two headstrong Southern women wrestling for control of a small-town church choir. Dolly Parton plays wealthy widow G.G. Sparrow, who's used to her money and steel magnolia personality getting everyone around her to do things her way, which means big, flashy, and fresh. Vi Rose (Queen Latifah), a military wife struggling to raise two teens alone, is the one person who isn't charmed by G.G.'s good ol' girl act, and she prefers a more traditional form of worship. When G.G's New York grandson comes to town and joins the choir to get closer to Vi Rose's strait-laced daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer), Vi Rose has even more reason to butt heads with G.G.
This should be plenty enough plot to fill out a feel-good musical romp. But instead of mining gold from his two primary characters, Graff flits about scratching up a bit of secondary conflict here (Vi Rose's son struggles with Asperger's) and turning up a clump of drama there-at the last minute G.G. faces off with the pastor who suddenly (and inexplicably) takes issue with the choir's increasingly contemporary sound. The result is a storyline that feels at once too much and too little.
A few sparkling scenes between Latifah and Parton offer a glimpse of what might have been had Graff been satisfied to let his leading ladies take center stage. Her immobile expression notwithstanding, Parton can still deliver a zinger like no one else. And when they're allowed to mix it up, the two women display great chemistry. Likewise, Broadway veteran Jeremy Jordan's performance as G.G's grandson, Randy, hints at a charisma he never gets the opportunity to capitalize on. Why bring on such talent only to spend much of your time squandering it?
But the most confusing thing about Joyful Noise is its well-deserved PG-13 rating. Graff and Warner Bros. have to be hoping church-going audiences will turn out for Joyful Noise. Yet for some reason the movie's most repetitive gag is to have an otherwise modest character blurt out a profanity at an inopportune moment. To be fair, once or twice, as with Sissy Spacek's memorable pie-related one-liner in The Help, the gag works. It's hard not to laugh. But by the fourth or fifth time, even viewers who aren't averse to foul language will be groaning, recognizing it as lazy writing sure to turn off the very audience the film wants to court.
More troubling, however, is a subplot involving a single choir member who complains that she hasn't had sex in four years. When she finally breaks the drought with a fellow choir member, she wakes to find the man dead in her bed. Everyone in the choir-professing Christians all-and even the pastor treat the incident as a joke. In a movie that isn't centered on lifting voices to praise God, such a subplot probably wouldn't garner more than a raised eyebrow. Here it feels insulting to the type of characters it's portraying. Tone deaf as it is to its audience, Joyful Noise may score bigger on iTunes than it does at the box office.