'Joyful Noise' a mixed bag

A massive hit never ends at its own conclusion, for better or worse.

A massive hit never ends at its own conclusion, for better or worse.

‘Lost’, Tim Burton's ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and other pop culture milestones spawned plenty of imitators of wavering quality that trickled on to screens until the phenomena tapered off.

‘Joyful Noise’, the new film starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, is one these auxiliary creative endeavours, a direct descendant of the cheeky drama/comedy/musical hybrid ‘Glee’.

But instead of teenage issues and pop covers, ‘Joyful Noise’ swaps in familial struggles, gospel tunes and a sizable serving of Christian faith. The combination results in a movie that lacks the jazz hand energy of ‘Glee’, but packs good-natured laughs to keep someone awake for its two hour duration. More ''noise'' than ''joyful.''

Mere minutes after the passing away of choir leader Bernie, Vi Rose (Latifah) inherits the position - along with a serving of negative vibes from Bernie's wife G.G. (Parton), who was hoping to take the job herself.

The new responsibility is only the beginning of Vi Rose's troubles, as she attempts to balance her rebellious daughter Olivia's (Keke Palmer) raging hormones, her son Walter's (Dexter Darden) Asperger's syndrome, her husband's absence during a military stint and her own old school, God-faring ways.

Hardships are whipped into further chaos upon the arrival of Randy, G.G.'s rambunctious, horny grandson, who shows up at rehearsal with an eye on Olivia and undeniable vocal skills. Randy's rock and roll edge is readily embraced by the group, but even with the national gospel championship on the line, Vi Rose isn't ready to toss tradition aside.

‘Joyful Noise’ is a mixed bag, sporadically entertaining when director Todd Graff (Camp, Bandslam) lets his two commanding stars flex their comedic muscles or belt soulful tunes.

Latifah and Parton can do both with ease - Latifah has a natural charm, while Parton essentially fills the ''kooky Betty White'' role here - but instead of letting the two fly, Graff breaks up the action with overwrought drama and bizarre side-character stories.

The script injects a lot of ideas into the picture - loss of faith, modernising ideologies, coping with tragedy, sexuality under the eye of God - but every tender moment is fumbled.

A gut-wrenching conversation between Vi Rose and her autistic son should have weight, and the actors do their best, but the material doesn't service the emotional complexity of the scenario. Instead, it opts to cut to a musical number.

Another sequence involving the overnight demise of another character is even played for comedy, even when it causes one woman to question her beliefs.

Thank God for the musical numbers, which have enough energy to brush the flimsier moments under the rug.

The ‘Glee’-inspired pop tune covers (Michael Jackson's ''Man in the Mirror,'' Usher's ''Yeah'' - both tailored with religious modifications) aren't nearly as interesting or powerful as the straight-up gospel songs.

But unlike the tunes, ‘Joyful Noise’ doesn't have rhyme or reason. A mishmash of played out character stereotypes, narrative cliches and enjoyable, but erratic music, the movie feels more like a cash-in than it should.

Latifah and Parton are a sizzling duo, but the vehicle built for them is a clunker.

As Vi Rose might say, the only way to have a great time at ‘Joyful Noise’ is to believe. Really, really hard.

Star Rating 2/5.

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