“Every now and then a movie comes along that truly earns the moniker of ‘feel good movie’ and Joyful Noise is one of them” is how I thought I was going to start this review after seeing the trailer. Unfortunately God couldn’t save the Queen (or us) from this film as both her performance and the film come up flat.
The premise of the film is pretty solid: The small town of Pacashau, Georgia has fallen on hard times. There are for sale signs on many businesses in town, many people are out of work and times are just generally tough. They are counting on their Divinity Church Choir (DCC) to win the National Joyful Noise Competition to give the town something to be proud of.
It felt like writer/director Todd Graff just didn’t know where to take it from there. Is this really surprising coming from the person who wrote The Beautician and the Beast? There is a reason why a system of checks and balances works so well and with Graff directing the film as well, he never gave himself a fighting chance. This movie was filled with so much cheese and fluff it is almost as if Graff was afraid to take it seriously. It didn’t know when to be funny and when to be serious and ends in a very gospel choir competition meets GLEE kind of way that honestly cheapens the whole film even further.
The film starts off badly and doesn’t get much better from there. We open to the Joyful Noise National Semi-Final where the DCC is performing a song being led by choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson). He begins to show signs of having a heart attack and is led off-stage by his wife G.G. (Dolly Parton) while Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) leads the choir as they finish the song. The problem is that the scene comes off more comedic than serious despite the fact that a man is dying of a heart attack. It was very distasteful and set the tone for what the movie would become.
This leads to the much anticipated fight between Vi and G.G. to take over the choir which is one of the things we were promised in the trailer. This storyline fell flat as well. The church council voted Vi in and that was that. The banter between Latifah and Parton didn’t come until later and was too few and far between. Yes, there was the scene later in a restaurant where G.G. calls Vi a heifer and Vi mocks G.G. for her plastic surgery but that ended coming off more mean than funny (we all know in real life Parton has had extensive work done on herself) and the interactions came too few and far between. Graff totally drops the ball with these two.
Ready for the next cliché? G.G.’s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), the trouble maker from the big city comes to stay with his grandmother. He of course is wild and unconventional but can sing like it is nobody’s business but Vi wants no part of him being in the choir because she is too traditional and, wait for it, doesn’t want him anywhere near her 16 year old daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer). This storyline has very little depth and doesn’t proceed much further either.
The romance between Randy and Olivia is as predictable as it is forced. The two actors have very little chemistry and despite the movie having a (wayyyyyyy too long) running time of 117 minutes, not enough time was spent with these two characters spending enough time to build a believable chemistry. You need more than just she is the pretty good girl and he is the good looking bad boy, if you want a quality film that is, which Graff doesn’t seem to be concerned about.
Speaking of unbelievable, how about the rest of the choir? They are the most unlikely bunch of caricatures, I mean characters, none of whom look they belong in any decent choir, let alone one competing for national championships. This has got to be the most unrealistically diverse small town choir ever! For example there is Earla (Angela Grovey) who is a lovely yet lonely black woman who hooks up with Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue) an older Asian man who ends up dead from their little romp due to his high blood pressure. Not only is the pairing of those two non-sensical, what is funny about a guy dying from sex, especially since we already had a heart attack earlier in the film? Don’t worry, later on in the film they replace Mr. Hsu with a younger Asian man for Earla to fall in love with. Seriously, what in the hell was Graff smoking?
Queen Latifah was a great rapper and she was very funny on “Living Single” but she is not a good enough actress to carry an entire film as the lead (if you don’t believe me, check out 2010’s Just Wright, although to be fair Common shares a lot of blame for that one too). Her character was so one dimensional, the angry and conservative single mother of two whose husband voluntarily re-upped with the Army and was away from home. There is maybe a scene or two where it is believable that she and Olivia are mother and daughter, but other than that, just looked like two actresses thrown together. Latifah is funny and that was just not utilized enough.
Keke Palmer is capable of so much more than eye rolls and lip smackin and Jeremy Jordan won’t be winning any Oscars ™ any time soon but he is better than lines like “let’s make some noise up in this bitch” standing in the middle of a church. That isn’t bad boy that is just crass. Again, these are Graff’s responsibilities, to give his actors something more to work with.
Dolly Parton really tried, and even had some great lines but she is just too fail and plastic to deliver them with the impact of her younger days.
There is one major bright spot and that is Dexter Darden’s performance as Vi’s son Walter who has Asperger’s Syndrome which is on the highest end on the functioning level of Autism. Effects of Asperger’s include significant difficulties in social interactions, which Walter himself discusses in the film and repetitive patterns in behavior and/or interests, represented in the film by Walter’s obsession with one hit wonder songs. Randy’s friendship with Walter allows Vi and the audience to see that Randy isn’t so bad. It is definitely something Graff got right also, portraying Asperger’s in the positive light it deserves and using this film to educate people on it and to use it as a platform for how people who are “different” should be treated. There is a scene with Vi and Walter who are discussing God’s involvement in his condition that will just rip your hear out.
If this movie was 30 minutes shorter, written by someone with talent and cast better, it could have been a great movie. As it stand, it is 2.5/5 stars and at best worth a trip to the cheap show but more realistically a rental where you have the fast forward button and a bathroom nearby because you will need both.