If you’re like me, you enjoy punishing yourself by watching movies that you expect to be horrible. It’s sort of like dealing with a hangover by drinking shots of vodka: you rush around and try to see all of the best Oscar-baiting films at the end of the year and then spend the month of January watching awful movies. As I learned on Sunday, when I met up with fifteen other folks for a boozy brunch at Dos Caminos before heading over to a late afternoon showing of Joyful Noise, the alcohol helps you get through it. Especially when it’s a two-hour-plus movie about dueling Southern ladies and gospel choir covers of Chris Brown hits. Spoilers abound, and this movie is so nuts that you actually won’t be able to predict the insane plotlines.
The movie starts with a choir featuring our heroines Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton performing at what appears to be some nightclub. There’s a banner over the stage that reads "Joyful Noise," just in case you forgot what movie you’re watching. And Kris Kristofferson is there as the choir director! And everything is so joyful! That is until Kris Kristofferson has a heart attack on stage. It’s not even five minutes before the first person dies, and this is before you check IMDb on your phone to answer the questions "How long is this goddamn movie?" and "Is Dolly starring in a reboot of Madame’s Place?"
Kris Kristofferson was Dolly’s husband, so after we sit through a somber funeral scene in which Dolly is unable to force tears from her perpetually dry, wooden eyeballs, the fun finally begins as the pastor decides to pick Queen Latifah over Dolly for the job as choir director. This is so crazy because Dolly’s the old white lady in a primarily African-American church, and she’s basically keeping the place afloat by being the rich person who donates all of her money, and her husband was the choir director so she clearly deserves the position. It’s the American way! Didn’t you see The Help? Those sad maids wouldn’t have accomplished anything without the rich white girl.
Also, Queen Latifah and Dolly play women with actual names, but I’m just going to refer to them as Queen Latifah and Dolly because you don’t care what they called each other when they played dress-up in front of very expensive movie-making machines.
The movie takes place in Pacashau, Georgia, where nobody has a job because every hardware store has shut down. It’s the economy, stupid! Well, Queen Latifah has a job as a nurse, because choir-directing can’t cover all of the bills, apparently. She is also sort of a single mom, as her husband left two years before to go be a marine or something because, as we learn, Queen Latifah is actually a lot to deal with! But so are her kids, Olivia and Walter. Olivia is actually perfect, because she is pretty and can sing. Walter, however, has Asperger syndrome, which the people who made this movie assume is appropriately characterized by his wearing sunglasses inside and being a self-aware weirdo (I assume they didn’t seen that season of America’s Next Top Model).
Meanwhile, Dolly’s grandson Randy shows up. Fun fact: eight out of ten Southern women have a grandson named Randy. Randy’s mom is a deadbeat who didn’t even come to her dad’s funeral, and Randy’s vague ethnicity means that everyone in town thinks his mother’s a whore and that he can’t be trusted because of unseen and unspoken bad things that he did once. But Randy, like everyone else in this movie, is a great singer, and since he’s got a massive boner for Olivia, he decides to join the choir. (I guess there isn’t a Tastee Freeze or any drugs in Pacashau.)
OK, so we might as well get this part out of the way now: there’s an Asian member of the choir named Mr. Hsu who has a crush on the buxom Earla, and they get it on pretty early in the movie. And the next morning — because they are sinners – Earla makes him breakfast in bed, only to discover that he died. That’s the second dead person in thirty minutes! Obviously Earla is really upset that she sexed a man to death. "Everybody is going to talk about me!" she cries. "Earla: tap it and die!" (Nobody will say that.)
Randy, despite Queen Latifah’s suspicions, actually turns out to be a pretty nice young man. Sure, he gets into a fight with some other guy who wants to bone Olivia, and at one point sort of kidnaps her to take her to see her father on the army base (I guess it counts as a kidnapping because Olivia actually said this line: “Where are we going? We’ve been driving for over an hour,” because it just didn’t cross her mind that maybe she shouldn’t just hop in a car with high school dropouts with bad reputations), but he also teaches Walter how to play piano, so.
If you’ve seen Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, you can probably imagine where the main plot about a simple country choir competing in a national gospel competition is headed. They have a shot! Oh no, it looks like they don’t! Queen Latifah wants the old-fashioned songs! Dolly wants them to sing “Man in the Mirror”! (Did you catch the irony there? You see, Queen Latifah is younger than Dolly, but is actually more like an old person. This completes your film studies lesson of the day.) Queen Latifah quits in protest! The pastor won’t let Randy be in the choir, even after he recruits that other dude who likes Olivia to play electric guitar, because what the Pacashauans lack in job skills and economic sense they make up in musical talent! And then Queen Latifah sings a song by herself in the church and is suddenly joined by what appear to be the ghosts of the choir and you think, “Oh good, are they all dead?” but nope! They are just in her imagination.
Then, in the most amazing musical number in the history of cinematic musical numbers, Dolly and Randy sing a duet and then Dolly looks out the window to see Kris Kristofferson standing in the cornfield. And then they have a duet, and then another Dolly stands out in the cornfield while Inside Dolly sings along with them. Someone in the movie is described as “a train making all the local stops” (poor, sad Southern people are really great at metaphors), and I am pretty sure that it was just a post-modern acknowledgement that this movie is batshit crazy.
Now that this review/recap is almost as long as the movie, let’s cut to the chase: everyone makes it to the national Joyful Noise competitions and they’re up against a crew of children who sound like New Edition but are praising God rather than the joys of dry-humping. In a last minute decision, Queen Latifah rips off her robe on stage and jumps into a fully orchestrated version of “I Want To Take You Higher.” The poor stage director stands offstage, frantically flipping through the papers on his clipboard, but I guess he figured it all out because then the stage splits in two and the lights are all perfectly timed (subtext: he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard with a degree in Stage Studies). Then Randy sings a gospel version of Usher’s “Yeah,” complete with new lyrics like, “In the church with my homies / tryin’ to get my praise on.” And then Dolly sings Chris Brown’s “Forever” and I died in my seat.
So, to wrap it all up in a sentence (because the movie does as such in, oh, four minutes?): Queen Latifah’s husband comes back, she’s totally cool with Randy and Olivia being in love, she and Dolly are best friends, and the choir sings as Earla marries some cute Asian twink who shows up at the competition and is like, “Hey, I love you, I’ve been following you around all this time, you’re into Asians, right?” Then the guy who wrote and directed this movie is like, “Don’t worry about it, the end, bye!” The only way this movie could have been any greater / more terrible is if the bird from Country Strong showed up. Still, the bar has been raised, and it’s unlikely that Joyful Noise will lose the title of 2012’s Best Worst Movie.