A holy hot mess of the sacred and the inane, Joyful Noise, about a small-town Southern gospel choir, lifts from Usher's "Yeah!" to give us this inspirational lyric: "Now God and I are the best of homies."
The film is Jesus for Gleeks — no surprise, since writer-director Todd Graff's first movie, Camp (2003), which tracks the dramas of a bunch of junior show-tune queens, presaged the popular Fox TV series. Speaking of camp, the diva battle teased in the trailer for Joyful Noise between its two stars, Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton (in her first major movie role in two decades), flatlines, as do most of the movie's jokes. Less Bible-thumping than, say, a Tyler Perry project, Joyful Noise is still on an ecumenical outreach mission, its gags overshadowed by its focus on weightier, bluntly shoehorned-in subjects, like economic calamity and Asperger's syndrome.
Pacashau, Georgia, where every home and local franchise seems to have a (repeatedly cut-to) "FOR SALE" or "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS" sign, pins the little hope it has left on the Divinity Church's multiracial choir, once again in the semifinals for a national gospel competition. After the opening-scene death of the singing group's leader, Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson, appearing mainly as a specter), the pastor (Courtney B. Vance) appoints Vi Rose (Latifah) to replace him, ruffling G.G. (Parton), Bernard's widow and the church's main benefactor.
Brooking no sass, righteous Vi Rose works as a nurse to support her two teenage kids — Olivia (Keke Palmer), also in the choir, and Walter (Dexter Darden), whose difficulty in social interactions manifests itself in hiding behind sunglasses and spouting off his encyclopedic knowledge of one-hit wonders — while her husband is stationed hundreds of miles away on an army base. Vi Rose insists the choir stick with traditional arrangements, "traditional" a term broad enough to encompass Olivia's repurposing of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" as an ode to Him. The secular and the ecclesiastical further mix when G.G.'s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan, an Efron-esque annoyance), kicked out of his mom's house in New York, dons a purple robe in Pacashau to sing Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed."
Latifah and Parton, two effortlessly charismatic performers onscreen, are pleasing enough matriarchs, doing their best when forced to deliver nonsensical mouthfuls as country wisdom. "There's always free cheese in the mousetrap, but trust me — the mice there aren't happy," Vi Rose threatens one of Olivia's would-be suitors. Her warnings to Randy once he starts smooching her daughter sound even loopier, though these rebukes are preferable to her potted consolation when her son asks why "God made me this way."
Latifah, who executive-produced, at least has a somewhat rousing rejoinder in the film's final third, demanding the respect owed her, as a selfless provider forced to take a second job, by the increasingly insolent Olivia. Parton, however, is stuck with corn like "Trying to fool me is like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster." (The country-music legend also takes several digs about her ghastly plastic surgery; her willingness to be made fun of does not make looking at her any less traumatic.)
The climactic sing-off is gaudy, Vegas-style maximalist megachurch entertainment, more piled on top of more, kicked off by a real gospel star (Karen Peck) who looks like Paula Deen as styled by Callista Gingrich. The Pacashau choir's number is an ungodly medley, and there is now a special place reserved in hell for those responsible for making Parton sing a few lines of Chris Brown's "Forever." Jesus wept. So will you.