Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dissonance: JOYFUL NOISE

Dolly Parton hasn’t had her big hair on the silver screen in twenty years. Though she’s clearly had some work done to her face, her screen presence is unchanged. She’s dynamite. In Joyful Noise, she stars opposite Queen Latifah as members of a church choir on its way to winning a national championship. Parton and Latifah could be a great match in a better film. They’re actresses who can go big without going over-the-top and can sell feisty one-liners with a nice blend of warmth and prickliness. (They're also often better than the kinds of movies they appear in). The choir finds some obstacles, sort of, and complications, most definitively, but these ladies just want to perform and who could ever stop them? The plot finds nearly constant reason to, but when the movie finally gives them the chance to open up their singing voices to a full blast, it sings too. What’s strange is how much time the movie spends not singing. During the lulls, things get weird.

Writer-director Todd Graff (most recently of Bandslam) takes a simple, thin story and loads it up with so many tangents, half-hearted thematic concerns, and dropped plot points that the whole clunky thing is perpetually on the verge of collapse. It’s an awkward joining of some disparate good ideas and a whole bunch of bad ideas into one tonal mess that sloshes about from flat attempts at comedy to thudding dramatic moments and back again within even the same scene. It’s just so weird, as weird as the soft and bland visuals. The movie opens with the choir director (Kris Kristofferson) having a heart attack on stage and then goes on to contain any number of inexplicable plot elements that collide and combust every which way.

This is a movie that contains a scene in which a man dies after a one night stand and leaves the poor woman who finds him dead in her bed crying at his funeral because she thinks all men will be afraid to come near her from now on. And that scene is played for laughs. Yes, you read that right. This is an actual subplot in an otherwise wholesome movie about a choir. It’s a movie that tries to get laughs and tears, even at the very same subject. A sorrowful scene of a closing mom-and-pop hardware shop is followed immediately by a wacky slapstick fight in a restaurant that gets a waitress fired, ending on a note so half-hearted and comedic it’s practically scored with a sad trombone.

Taking center stage in this tone-deaf movie is Latifah as a struggling mother with two jobs and two kids, a teenage boy (Dexter Darden) with a conveniently cinematic version of Asperger’s syndrome and a talented but marginally unhappy adolescent girl (Keke Palmer).  Sharing the spotlight is Parton as a sassy widow and her interloping bad boy grandson (Jeremy Jordan). These two women are confident but troubled as they try to handle family problems while getting the choir in a good position to win its competition. They’re strong, independent ladies and it’s inevitable they’ll clash, especially since the daughter and the grandson have made googly eyes at each other.

But the characters never really come alive. I didn’t buy the young romance and I certainly never believed that these two sweet, funny, musical ladies would actually have the kind of animosity they’re supposed to have based on the slim evidence resented. The characters’ personalities shift depending on the needs of any given scene, which slides around as erratically as the movie’s mood. At least they have something resembling a personality, which is more than you can say for the supporting cast that is filled with mostly anonymous glorified extras who are lucky if they get a one-note running gag. But when the big choir competition climax comes and the ladies lead their flock in a rousing off-the-cuff mash-up of pop music and gospel sentiments, it put a smile on my face and a tap in my toes. There’s huge talent in this movie, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why the messy, erratic plot insists on hiding it behind a bushel of ridiculousness. 

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