'Joyful Noise' lacks key element: Joyful noise

Dolly Parton (left) and Queen Latifah are two of the stars of “Joyful Noise,” and while Latifah is very good, Parton’s performance leaves much to be desired.

Even though it relies on a successful movie formula -- underdog competitors get a chance to shine in the national spotlight -- "Joyful Noise" is too tone-deaf to put its few blessings to good use.

The film was written and directed by Todd Graff -- whose engaging "Camp," about Sondheim-obsessed teens at theater camp, predated "Glee" by a good six years -- so you might think he would have a good grasp on the pacing required for this familiar recipe; how many dollops of drama, comedy, songs and inspirational moments are required.

But despite its handful of good musical numbers and a solid-as-usual performance from Queen Latifah, the real heart and soul of the film, "Joyful Noise" turns out to be flimsy and erratic, stumbling around its characters' emotions with little purpose and no narrative direction.

The plot, what there is of it, centers on a gospel choir in a tiny Georgia town hit hard by the economy.

New choir director Vi Rose (Latifah) wants to stick to traditional songs and arrangements as her group prepares for a big competition.

Opposing her conservative decision are her over-protected teenage daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer); the former director's widow, the fiery, combative G.G. (Dolly Parton); and G.G.'s bad-boy grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan), whom Vi Rose doesn't trust because he's clearly sweet on Olivia.

There really isn't much more to "Joyful Noise," but even on this slight foundation a rousing piece of entertainment can be built.

Beyonce and Cuba Gooding Jr. managed it in 2003's "The Fighting Temptations." Yes. That Cuba Gooding Jr.

But "Joyful Noise" is unfocused, and too many scenes seem random.

The only character with any real depth is Vi Rose, largely because of Latifah's inability to deliver an inauthentic performance; she provides the most arresting moment of the film when she erupts in fury at a careless accusation from her daughter.

Characters talk about how the choir needs to win to boost the town's morale, but we never see many townspeople clamoring for a victory. The church doesn't even fill up when the choir sings.

We really never learn how the competition works -- any "Glee" fan can explain the difference between sectionals or regionals -- and, worst of all, stirring musical numbers are in short supply.

The finale, once it finally rolls around, is a revelation, but it underscores what "Joyful Noise" is lacking -- enough joyful noise to qualify as a crowd-pleaser.

There's another problem too, though to mention it seems cruel: Parton, who is rapidly overtaking Cher in the How Much Work Can One Woman Have Done sweepstakes, can apparently no longer change her facial expression, so having her spar constantly with Vi feels perfunctory.

"Joyful Noise" tries to mitigate this unhappy fact by having Vi throw out a few snotty jokes about G.G.'s "procedures," but when a character is mad, she should look mad. Not blank.