Joyful Noise, sort of a Glee-meets-gospel music choral competition musical, makes a pleasant enough racket. A cheerful, not-quite-off-color crowd-pleaser that rarely breaks formula, it's the big-screen equivalent of a sloppy smooch from your over- affectionate aunt over the holidays.
You grimace. You stand there and take it. And you don't let anybody see you grin afterward.
Writer-director Todd Graff, who specializes in this sort of cheerful, campy musical (Bandslam, Camp) lured Dolly Parton back from the surgically altered wilderness and paired her with Queen Latifah. They play two big belters with competing visions of how their integrated, small-town church choir can win the big Joyful Noise choir contest.
Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) takes over as choir director after longtime director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) dies. His widow and the choir's big financial benefactor, G.G. (Parton), isn't happy about that. But she grits her teeth and carries on, delivering homespun wisecracks along the way.
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Graff delights in those, and he scatters Southern similes through the script — zingers delivered by Parton and other members of Sacred Divinity Church in Pacashau, Ga., including this warning from Vi Rose: "There's always free cheese in the mousetrap!"
She drops that on her pretty soloist daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). Olivia needs to hear it because the boys are noticing her, especially G.G.'s randy grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan).
Then there's Vi Rose's other kid, Walter (Dexter Darden), whose Asperger's syndrome takes the form of an obsession with songs of one-hit wonders.
Graff's script is a real cut-and-paste-from-the- zeitgeist affair, from the movie condition of choice (Asperger's) to the hard times (Pacashau is a dying town suffering in a down economy). Vi Rose is essentially a single mom; her husband is in the Army.
What he fails to do is to give the story a villain. He rubs the edges off his two leads, who harmonize onstage and barely set off sparks in their arguments offstage. The parent-child fights feel forced. The choir's big rivals in choral competition are underdeveloped, and the long-suffering pastor (Courtney B. Vance) isn't that much of a threat to "shut down the choir."
But the music — which includes gospel takes on Maybe I'm Amazed, Man in the Mirror and Sly and the Family Stone's Higher — makes this a fine showcase for the voices, and everybody gets his or her solo.
In a movie marketplace that embraced a perfectly awful exorcism film last weekend, one would hope that Keke, Dolly and the Queen could lift their voices and lure in the faithful.