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Family Movie Review: Joyful Noise (PG-13)

Queen Latifah has a nice way of boosting even the most expected films.”Joyful Noise” isn’t surprising in any way, but Queen Latifah’s positive presence boosts it above the chintz.

Queen Latifah’s ability to elevate poor material was most obvious in 2010’s “Just Wright,” a silly movie starring her as a physical therapist who has to compete with her beautiful best friend for a rich professional basketball player. It was all a wash, but Queen Latifah! That charisma! That comic timing! They’re the same qualities that make “Joyful Noise,” a film that unsurprisingly affirms the delightful joy of the arts, more than just pure cheese.

But let’s be straight: It’s a lot of cheese, mixed in quite clunkily with a variety of rapid-fire romantic relationships and petty, cruel rivalries. In small Pacashau, Ga., choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) unexpectedly dies, with his leadership of the Georgia Sacred Divinity Church singers passed along to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), who favors a more traditional gospel style that pleases Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance). But her control immediately angers Bernard’s widow, G.G. Sparrow (Dolly Parton), who is not only angry that she didn’t get the choir but also frustrated with Vi Rose’s musical choices. Vi Rose isn’t ready to take many edgy musical chances, but G.G., a lover of pop and country, thinks the choir needs more relevant modern music to grow.

And yes, they’re competing: Already semifinalists in the National Joyful Noise Competition in Los Angeles, the choir wants to win, a victory that would be a severe boost to the town’s poverty-stricken residents. Vi Rose and G.G. square off, of course, and do so in the most public of ways—fighting in a local restaurant, where Vi Rose screams insults at the working G.G. about her plastic surgery, and biscuits are thrown, and customers gawk on. How many jokes can be made about Parton’s plastic surgery? A lot, apparently.

Among a variety of different subplots to the Vi Rose vs. G.G. fracas, there’s the romance between Vi Rose’s teen daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G.G.’s bad-boy grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who got in some mysterious trouble that landed him in Georgia. Olivia is boy-crazy and Randy is flirtatious, so the two instantly fall in the kind of love that exists only in absurd romantic comedies. Also involved in their relationship is Olivia’s brother Walter (Dexter Darden), who has Asperger’s syndrome and yearns to feel the same things everyone else does. Randy attempts to befriend him, but as Vi Rose and G.G. work against each other and to keep their younger relatives apart, Walter may get lost in the mix.

The dialogue isn’t enlightening; the romance isn’t surprising; the characters aren’t that well developed. Isn’t it shocking that, in such a poor town, G.G. had enough money to get all that work done? And is Olivia really so over-the-top sex-obsessed that she can’t realize all the sacrifices single mom Vi Rose has had to make? Bad choices abound.

But Latifah and Parton have a nice thing going, even though that biscuit-heavy fight gets real ugly. The former has a friendly charm that keeps her character relatable, and the latter—although she looks like a caricature of herself by this point—is self-aware enough to understand that deprecating humor is the way to go. When the two team up, the film firmly moves into, “Oh hey, I know where this is going,” territory; nevertheless, the performances are certainly rousing, like the “I Want to Take You Higher” finale. Don’t hide your grin, it will be impossible.

Overall, though, the film doesn’t live up to those songs, to the cheeky cuteness of Randy’s and Olivia’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” or the overwhelmingly adorable “That’s the Way God Planned It,” from one of Divinity Church’s rival choirs. “Joyful Noise” wants to be as moving as those songs, but it’s not—it’s too grounded in clichés to rise above.


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