Latifah and Parton Make 'Noise'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I wonder if I'm the only person out there who finds it oddly amusing that the little guy who played the intense weirdo with the pet lab rat in James Cameron's "The Abyss" now makes his living writing and directing movies about ... well, one of his movies was actually titled "Bandslam," how's that? I don't know, just strikes me as an unusual show-biz wrinkle. Todd Graff is the writer-director's name, and his latest foray of appreciation into the world of semi-pro music is "Joyful Noise," the story of internecine conflict in a competition-bound small-town Georgia gospel choir that pits old school against new in the persons of Queen Latifah and, in her first big feature film role in 20 years, Dolly Parton.
In a possibly not entirely unanticipated switcheroo, onetime hip-hop architect Latifah plays the representative of the traditionalist side. Her pious, hard-working Vi Rose Hill does much bristling at the suggestion that the choir she now leads sing pop songs and add some showmanship to their presentation. In this, she is supported by Courtney Vance's Pastor Dale. It is again not entirely unsurprising that the still-glitzy, still-feisty, and still unusually proportioned Parton, as well-off self-styled "Gorgeous Grandma" G.G. Sparrow, is on the side of the forces of tarting things up, although it's out of her hands since her hubby, the choir's former director, played by Kris Kristofferson, theatrically clutched at his left arm and then shuffled off in the film's opening scene. Complicating the road to the competition are the offspring of Vi and G.G., a girl-you'll-be-a-foxy-lady-soon songbird (Keke Palmer) and a prodigal grandkid (Jeremy Jordan), respectively, and their budding romance. It's kind of refreshing that the conflict here comes via Vi's strictness and is not, as they say, race-motivated, but the post-racial aspect of the film's characterizations are really the only thing terribly novel about it.
In terms of my actual subjective taste, this might not be the best film for me to be reviewing. I mean, if a scientist wanted to create an exact mathematical inversion of everything I go to the movies for, a musical-comedy about a gospel choir with an added teen romance would be pretty close to hitting that mark. But even from as objective a standpoint as I could muster, I found a fair amount of lack here.
Even for the big musical numbers, the shooting is pretty flat. Know-somethingish cinephiles who like to sniff that "The Descendants" looked "like a TV movie" can only credibly do so because they never sit through pictures such as this one. The writing is a bit scattershot, with weird bits of comedy business coming out of nowhere, or so it seems, and then becoming sort-of plot points. "Joyful Noise" bears almost all the liabilities one gets from current studio product, including bloating.
However, the movie's heart really is in the right place, and while Parton is largely underused in the balance of the film, her big showdown scene with Latifah will bring fond memories of "Nine to Five" to some, and fond memories of "Bringing Down the House" to others. A little after that, Latifah lets loose some very strong acting chops in a mother-daughter confrontation scene that's genuinely jarring and moving. And the musical numbers are very tuneful, energetic and well-recorded. (Although Kristofferson, who -- spoiler alert! -- kinda-sorta comes back from the dead to duet with Dolly, is now if anything an even worse singer than during the heyday of his recording career.) And also, there are no excrement jokes, as there were in the last populist treatment of Southern life and race relations to come down the cinematic pike. That's something.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.