You know what sort of movie you’ve gotten with Joyful Noise long before Dolly Parton announces, apropos of nothing, that “I know what to do, yodel lee hee hoo.” You’ve already seen Parton grab spaghetti off a diner’s plate and throw it in co-star Queen Latifah’s face. You’ve seen Keke Palmer lead a rousing gospel choir rendition of “Man in the Mirror.” You’ve experienced the ups and downs of the wild, inconsistent shifts in tone and the perils of Todd Graff’s loose-limbed direction. But that unprompted half-a-yodel is a litmus test. Perhaps you’ve bought into the schlock Graff is slinging, shut off your mental faculties and embraced the Latifah-Parton show, in which case it’s just Dolly being Dolly. Alternatively, that avalanche of vomit that’s been amassing inside your throat with each inane, lazy moment finally finds its way onto the floor.
I found myself somewhere between the two extremes throughout this exceptionally mediocre film, which only benefits from the fact that it’s never boring. The story of a small-town gospel choir prepping for a singing competition is singularly uninteresting, even if things pick up when they perform their pop covers (Usher and the Beatles are among those victimized alongside Michael Jackson).
Yet once you’ve accepted that Joyful Noise is not actually worth seeing, its spirit keeps things afloat. The filmmaker and his cast clearly have no idea that they’re making a comedy, so the movie is filled with the painstaking earnestness of a bad film made with the best of intentions. There are so many great examples of this, beyond those mentioned above, that it’s hard to know where to begin.
It’s awfully hard to not, on some level, love a movie in which Latifah’s choir director Vi Rose Hill demands that her daughter Olivia (Palmer) “respect my snoring,” which makes even less sense in context. Or one that treats a character with a very mild case of Asperger’s as if he’s stricken with AIDS, constantly bemoaning his terrible life.
The screenwriting is so awkward, so poorly edited, that your jaw stays rooted to the floor from start to finish. Characters arbitrarily shift between hating and liking each other. The only consistency is that no one in the film does anything that an actual real-life human would do under a similar set of circumstances.
Then there are the bizarre narrative choices. Graff regards the sudden and unexpected death of a choir member as a fount of humor. A romance develops over the course of one conversation. We barely even see the choir preparing for their competition. There are two interminable deeply-personal, reflective ballads, sung by Latifah and Parton on that hoary cliché – the empty, darkened stage.
A halfwit underdog story that never establishes the stakes, pays lip service to the economic struggles within the small-town setting and offers a heavy dose of ill-fitting, broadly telegraphed dramatics, Joyful Noise should be much less tolerable than it is. But if you should find yourself trapped at this diva show and are willing to give in to its heightened stupidity, you’ll get your money’s worth in a perverse sort of way.
The Upside: Unintentional hilarity. Lots of it.
The Downside: Lazy storytelling, terrible acting and inexplicably inconsistent characters, among many other problems.
On the Side: Some critics have wondered if Dolly Parton’s plastic surgery is a major problem when it comes to taking the movie seriously, which is sort of like wondering if a leaky drain was the problem on the Titanic, if you catch my drift.