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Monday, March 18,2013

Serving up gospel with a side of glitz

Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah duel and duet in the proudly hokey 'Joyful Noise'

by James Sanford
"Joyful Noise" is set in one of those homey Georgia hamlets in which everyone over 35 is a country-fried Confucius, eagerly (and aggressively) dispensing the sort of wisdom that ought to come with a side of sausage gravy and a plate of waffles.

"There's free cheese in the mousetrap, but trust me -- the mice aren't happy," hawk-eyed mom Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) warns one of her teenage daughter's suitors. "When foxes pack the jury box, the chicken's always guilty," laments wealthy G.G. (Dolly Parton) when she's accused of scheming. "If people swept in front of their own front doors, the whole world would be clean," Vi grouses when confronted with gossip. "Trying to fool me is like tryin' to sneak sunrise past a rooster," G.G. tells her Randy (Jeremy Jordan), the grandson who's been exiled to Bumpkinville after making trouble for his family in New York City.

It's enough to make you wonder if writer/director Todd Graff actually printed out his script, or if he hired a needlepoint guild to stitch it on a bunch of cushions he could hand out to the actors.

When Vi Rose and G.G. aren't doling out extra-crispy aphorisms, they're often hurling putdowns at each other. G.G.'s husband (Kris Kristofferson) was the director of the local church choir, so when he passed away suddenly, she assumed the pastor (Courtney B. Vance, more or less replaying his role from "The Preacher's Wife") would beg her to carry on in his place. Instead, Vi Rose gets the gig, which leads to a lot of feudin', fussin' and a-fightin', as these territorial cats show off their well-manicured claws. Choice insults include "I'd call you stubborn, but that would be an insult to mules!" and "I'm old? You read the Bible to reminisce!"

The Southern sass is balanced out with a heaping helping of sentimentality, as Vi Rose tries to avoid letting her kids -- the talented but uppity Olivia (Keke Palmer) and chatty, fact-spouting Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger's -- get on her last nerve while she copes with a husband who re-enlisted in the Army to provide for the family. There's also the less-than-nail-biting suspense of whether or not the warring women will get their act together in time to help the choir prepare for a national singing competition in Los Angeles.

Along the way, G.G. finds time to sing a lilting duet with her ghostly spouse and Vi Rose realizes that perhaps giving Olivia a little freedom, both artistically and socially, might not be the end of the world.

Hokey it may be, but at least "Joyful Noise" pushes its corniness with conviction, and Latifah and Parton turn out to be persuasive salespeople (their singing voices turn out to blend surprisingly nicely, too). It's also not terribly difficult to forgive the movie's missteps into "Hee Haw"-level humor once Parton, Latifah and company turn their attention to making music; Jordan and Palmer contribute their share of vocal fireworks as well. While the film may not have you rolling in the aisles, it might be more successful in getting you to dance on your seat: The upbeat numbers (including a guest appearance by Kirk Franklin) are saturated with spirit, and Latifah's sedate solo "Fix Me, Jesus" is sung with disarming sincerity.

The soundtrack craftily recycles old Top 40 hits like Wings' "Maybe I'm Amazed," Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" as pseudo-gospel ear candy, with a few tweaked lyrics and some energetic arrangements. Hilariously, even Usher's "Yeah" gets the treatment during the finale -- and one of the biggest laughs in "Joyful Noise" comes from watching how quickly an obviously uncomfortable Parton boogies offstage seconds after the electro-hip-hop beat kicks in.

Intentionally or not, "Joyful Noise" makes the case that when it comes to reaching out to today's Christian audience, pop is a better weapon than proselytizing. "Rock of Ages" and "The Old Rugged Cross" are nowhere to be heard, as the choir seems considerably less focused on spiritual uplift than they are on triumphing over their rivals. Praising the Lord is all good and well, but in the end, the show must go on. 
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