If you had wanted to see Joyful Noise for its promise of a whole movie full of Queen Latifah versus Dolly Parton camp-offs - and I can truly not imagine any other possible reason that a person could have for wanting to see Joyful Noise, unless they were related to somebody who worked on it - you would end up rather disappointed (if, on the other hand, you did not want to see Joyful Noise for any reason, then congratulations, because you are much, much smarter than I am).

Which is not to say that there are absolutely no Latifah/Parton fights, for there certainly are, and they are very much the best part of the movie, with the caveat that being the best part of Joyful Noise is a pretty easy thing to do. It's a ridiculously plain thing, with absolutely no personality that it didn't still from other movies, mostly Footloose - the original, not that it makes all that much of a difference. Not being a Warner Bros. executive, I can't swear to it that the pitch was "Footloose with gospel music", but I would be absolutely stunned if that phrase wasn't used at least once during the film's pre-production (and if it wasn't then "Footloose meets Sister Act" absolutely had to have been). This should tell you most of what goes right with the film and all of what goes wrong.

It should also tell you the bulk of the plot, but for the look of the thing, I will go ahead with a synopsis: a denominationally non-specified church in a sleepy Georgia town has just lost its choir director (Kris Kristofferson), who had a heart attack right onstage at the local choir championships. He's replaced by steel-fisted Vi Rose Hill (Latifah), over the objections of his widow, and the church's sole financial backer, G.G. Sparrow (Parton). They bicker and argue over where the church's music should go, an argument that is sharpened when G.G.'s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan, whom I understand to be a Broadway person making his film debut) shows up in town, with a whole basketful of ideas about how to jazz up the tired choir with pop music. He also attempts to seduce Vi Rose's daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer), while helping Olivia's brother Walter (Dexter Darden) express himself through the wall of Asperger's syndrome, and this intrusion into her family's business does not meet with Vi Rose's approval, no, not at all.

If your suspicion is that eventually, G.G. will prevail upon Vi Rose to listen to Randy, and this causes them to make it all the way to the national choir championships, you may have a cookie. If you believe that en route, Olivia decides that it is better to chase her heart than be cowed by an authoritarian parent, you may have another. If you assume that the film has a shitload of pop songs re-orchestrated with gospel settings and performed by all of the various musical figures littering the cast, you had just as well go buy a whole box of cookies, though this last thing is at least part of why the movie works and not part of why it is ungodly mediocre. Whatever can be said about Parton's acting skills (they are charmingly terrible), or Palmer and Jordan's (they are only terrible, especially Palmer, who doesn't can't stand still without looking like she's trying too heard), the three of them all have pretty great voices and if you do not love Dolly Parton's voice then you may go to hell directly. Latifah, meanwhile, has a great voice and is a tremendous actor; at least, she has an incredible ability to dominate the camera without visibly trying, and that might ultimately be a more important thing than being a tremendous actor. The role of an icy, unfeeling parent with an extremely sharp tongue and fast wit is a natural fit for her presence and natural authority, and that is the reason that Vi Rose is ultimately a far more credible character than the paint-by-numbers psychology of writer-director Todd Graff's script would apparently call for. She is brilliant in her handful of comic insult-trading scenes with Parton (I am not proud enough to deny that a scene where they fight in a restaurant, and Latifah suggests that she cannot see things from Parton's point of view "because I can't get my head that far up my ass", made me unnecessarily happy), she is utterly convincing as a prideful woman crippled by her fealty to tradition and the most suffocating kind of inflexible religiosity, and she sells the living shit out of her big third-act confrontation with Olivia, all clichés and weirdly-motivated beats that must have absolutely crawled away and died on the page, but actually manages to be convincing and potent here.

Needless to say, there's absolutely fuck-all else about Joyful Noise in anything like that class, though Parton's southern-fried comic supporting turn is appealing in its playing-to-the-back-row way. And the gospel numbers are pretty satisfying in the sense that listening to talented people performing songs is always satisfying, though a part of me, nor a small part, wishes that there had been more actual gospel and less gospelfied pop songs (the world may or may not have been suffering for not knowing what a Dolly Parton cover of Chris Brown would sound like, but if so, it suffers no longer). I could have done without the flashback Parton/Kristofferson duet - turns out their voices are incompatible in every way two voices can be - but it's not a movie full of musical clinkers, even if it lacks any musical masterpieces.

Mainly, though, and despite my incredible enthusiasm for pretty much everything Latifah does when she's onscreen, Joyful Noise is a damn slog: the leads, despite the poster, the trailer, and the opening credits, are not Latifah and Parton, but Palmer and Jordan, and they're neither charismatic enough not do they have enough chemistry to put over the main love story that Graff finds so inexplicably engrossing. Certainly, they're no Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer; they're not even Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough.. Hell, Jordan and Darden have more chemistry than Jordan shares with his leading lady, a fact which the filmmakers note and uncomfortably dispose of with a feeble gay panic joke.

And it's not like Graff does very much to prop up the rest of the movie: save for a couple of sequences that desperately want to make us think that this is all some kind of economic parable for the endless recession we now live in, there is absolutely nothing resembling visual storytelling, and the only thing that the director manages to pull off with more than the absolute minimum of competence is to give the rest of the choir beyond our four leads some measure of personality and depth, even if those personalities are only slightly more complex than you'll find in a daily comic strip. I mean, it's a complete nothing movie. Latifah's presence and Latifah's voice (and Parton's) make it easy to wish that it was something, anything, but if wishes were the same as reality, they wouldn't be wishes.