Sort of a "Glee!"-meets-gospel music choral competition musical, "Joyful Noise" makes a pleasant enough racket. A cheerful, not-quite-off-color crowd pleaser that rarely breaks formula, it's the big screen equivalent of a sloppy smooch from your over-affectionate aunt over the holidays.
You grimace. You stand there and take it. And you don't let anybody see you grin afterward.
Writer-director Todd Graff, who specializes in this sort of cheerful, campy musical ("Bandslam," "Camp") lured Dolly Parton back from the surgically altered wilderness and paired her with Queen Latifah. They play two big belters with competing visions of how their integrated, uplifting small-town church choir can win the big Joyful Noise choir contest.
Will they wear the robes, keep the showmanship to a minimum and perform unadulterated gospel pop? Or will they show some flash, adapt mainstream love songs of the past and rock the house?
You remember "Sister Act," you know the answer.
Vi Rose (Latifah) takes over as choir director when their longtime director (Kris Kristofferson) has a heart attack and dies after a performance. G.G. (Parton), his widow and the choir's big financial benefactor, isn't happy about that. But she grits her teeth and carries on, delivering homespun wisecracks along the way.
Graff delights in those, and scatters Southern similes through the script.
"You're so country, you've been married three times and you've still got the same in-laws!"
"Don't you look as happy as a puppy waggin' two tails!"
And this Vi Rose warning, "There's always free cheese in the mouse trap!"
She drops that one on her pretty soloist daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). Olivia needs to hear it because the boys are noticing her, especially G.G.'s randy grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan). He's got talent that only comes out when he joins the choir to hit on Olivia.
Then there's Vi Rose's other kid, Walter (Dexter Darden), whose Asperger's Syndrome takes the form of an obsession with songs of one-hit wonders.
Graff's script is a real cut-and-paste-from-the-zeitgeist affair, from the movie disease of choice (Asperger's) to the hard times - Pacashau is a dying town suffering in a down economy. Vi Rose is essentially a single mom because her husband is in the Army. And Graff made his script sellable by tilting it toward the younger characters.
What he fails to do in this "big game" formula film is to give the story a villain, someone or something to overcome and root against. He rubs the edges off his two leads, who harmonize onstage and barely set off sparks in their arguments offstage. The parent-child fights feel forced. The choir's big rivals in choral competition are underdeveloped, and the long-suffering pastor (Courtney B. Vance, of course) isn't that much of a threat.
Graff gave his PG comedy a PG-13 edge by peppering the script with profanity and winking at premarital sex.
But the music - which includes gospel takes on "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Man in the Mirror" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Higher," makes this a fine showcase for the voices, and everybody gets his or her solo.