Movie Review: “Joyful Noise”
Opens: January 13th, Nationwide
Her stub clearly read “The Devil Inside” in large, bolded print. A horrifyingly contorted mug–inverted cross etched into its bottom lip by its own finger–glared up from the ticket as she sat next to me at today’s screening of “Joyful Noise,” a film most certailny not about demons, anti-biblical (red-faced, prong-holding) beings, or self-mutilation. The poor woman was clearly in the wrong theater (after seeing the film, arguably so was I), but you can certainly make a case for Dolly Parton’s voluntary subjection of herself to post-procedure ridicule on a fifty foot screen as self mutilatory (a more appropriate title would have been “Watch Dolly Attempt Facial Movement” in a Kuleshov-esque splicing together of assorted happenings, each met with the same country-fried reaction). Who knows? Perhaps by film’s end, my poor neighbor couldn’t differentiate the face on her stub from Parton’s. And if two hours of that kind of confusion (coupled with just staring at Partonstein for that long) isn’t hell, ladies and gentleman, I’m not sure what is.
“Joyful Noise” is a film with a misleading title, a painful two-hour ’comedy’ of cacophonus proportions, desperately wringing the last living daylights out of its stars’ infectious personas to screeching results. It’s not a film that’s got little to draw from; its two female powerhouse singers (Queen Latifah and Parton, who can act, to boot) hold together a cast of immensely talented crooners (not so so much with the “acting” parts, though. I guess one out of two ain’t bad in this neck of ‘meh, we’ve got our stars and now we’re on a budget’ casting session woods). But they’re all fumbling around in a script which, when all melodramatic tropes misfire, frantically throws its characters a musical number as if to dazzle our minds away from the fact that what we’re watching is mere plebian dribble, an overtly religious agenda slapped on for good measure.
Good musicals are tactful. The music becomes the story. Not here; in the world of “Joyful Noise,” it’s enough to break form with a musical aside that merely complements any given characters’ emotional state of being at any given time as the only source of sonic interlude. That happens here a lot.
Our characters are at least given diegetic motivation/justification to actually sing, seeing as a majority of them are members of a small town gospel choir newly headed by Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) after the death of its former director (Kris Kristofferson) and late husband of member G.G. Sparrow (Parton). G.G. thinks she should be choir director. Vi Rose thinks she was rightfully appointed. And thus the film sets forth its racial divide; an opposition characterized more by the fact that the women pitted against each other are of different races than by giving us any sort of legitimate validation for either of their feelings of entitlement (I’ll give the film this; at least the word “cracker” wasn’t uttered once throughout. Can’t say the same on the audience’s end, however).
The film fleshes out its focus with various subplots, ranging everywhere from the budding (but *gasp* forbidden) relationship between Vi Rose’s daugther Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) to the couplings of various other choir members. But it’s a production which treats such subplots as just that; subplots. Add-ons. Hamburger helper splotched together where Angus beef should have been served.
“Joyful Noise” is a film clearly banking on the star power of its leading ladies as the driving force for an audience that isn’t expecting much at all. But after the first comically contrived scene of playful banter between the two, “Joyful Noise” quickly runs out of tricks. The rest of the film plays like a Frankenstein’s monster of screenplays, stitching together run-of-the-mill tropes (religious mother shelters daughter, daughter falls for the bad boy, underdog competitors rise to the occasion, etc.) under the guise of “really” being about racial unity.
The problem with the film’s most superficially satisfying moments of Parton-on-Latifah banter is the moral placement of their characters. Vi Rose is vicious without reason, spewing shallow insults on some sort of unjustified offensive warpath, G.G. defending herself (at her snarkiest, that is) against a woman who certainly doesn’t practice what she preaches. It’s a one-sided argument before the argument’s even begun; Vi Rose is a nasty, cloying bitch in a screenplay which celebrates her as a tool to get to an ending the audience knows is coming not ten minutes into the whole thing, dragging Parton’s persona along for a few chuckles (which is all it’s worth here).
The film doesn’t go without its campy quirks; there’s a hilarious (whether intentional or not) scene towards the climax which sees contemporary urban hits from the likes of Usher and Chris Brown re-lyricized by what I could only imagine as a Harlem convent (note: if Parton squealing “You, me, and the Good Lord” in place of similar lyrics from Brown’s “Forever” doesn’t have you slapping your knee…). And there’s no denying the likability of its stars. Both women command the screen (as they have for years) with the infectious auras that made them industry elite. But what it all boils down to is there’s ultimately far better ways to indulge in the personalities of those we adore. There’s a reason Dolly Parton was cast in this film; she’s a superstar country artist, and listening to the albums which afforded her an assumed no-audition-needed part in “Joyful Noise” is a much better way to shower yourself with all that the icon has to offer. There’s no need to immerse yourself in a film that can’t decide whether it wants to tell a racially-charged love story with her persona as a frame or simply go for an all-out exploitation of the star power at its disposal. “Joyful Noise” settles for a ho-hum hodgepodge of the two, laced with a “God is Good” overarching message in hopes of freeing itself from any wrongdoing. I believe Joan of Arc tried that, too. Perhaps “Joyful Noise” should meet the same fate.
“If God really wanted to shoot you, I’m sure he wouldn’t miss,” Vi Rose tells a choir member as he contemplates his life’s fateful misfortunes God befalls him. I couldn’t help but think of the poor woman next to me who chose to endure the wrong film for two hours until this point. Was she thinking the same thing? Was it by some means of divine happening that she’d ended up in the wrong theater with me? Because that line is certainly a total meta lock and stock, ”Joyful Noise” the Lord’s smoking barrell attempt at mass murder.