My partner, Jim, is the world's biggest Dolly Parton fan... well, after Gary and Larry Lane, those adorable gay twins at the center of last year's documentary, Hollywood to Dollywood. Therefore, Jim and I had to go see Dolly's first big-screen movie in nearly 20 years -- Joyful Noise, co-starring the formidable Queen Latifah -- on opening day this past Friday. While some critics are dismissing this gospel-tinged dramedy as "fluff" and "cheese," I found it to have considerably more substance than they are giving it credit for.
Parton plays G.G. Sparrow, the bankrolling widow of recently-deceased church choir director Bernard Sparrow (a briefly-shown but effective Kris Kristofferson). When G.G. is passed over by the church's council to lead the choir in favor of single mom Vi Rose Hill (Latifah), tensions in their tight-knit, recession-ravaged Georgia town begin to rise. A budding romance between G.G.'s grandson, Randy (cute and charismatic Jeremy Jordan), and Vi Rose's teenage daughter (Keke Palmer, a lovely and gifted singer) only adds fuel to the fire.
A number of conflicts come to their head as the choir preps for the high-profile "Joyful Noise" gospel music competition, including Vi Rose's separation from her re-enlisted military husband (a nice turn by Jesse L. Martin of Rent fame). Vi Rose also has to deal with her son, who has Asperger's Syndrome but also could be gay based on an exchange he has with Randy. At minimum, the boy's medical condition can be read as a metaphor for homosexuality, and a conversation with Vi Rose in which he reveals his anger at God for his disability will ring true for any GLBT viewers.
Writer-director Todd Graff, best known for the indie hit Camp, is no stranger to plots where music, sexuality and faith collide. In Joyful Noise, Graff also raises the timely issues of economic instability and the challenges faced by military families. It's a busy, somewhat overstuffed and frequently predictable script but it incorporates a number of serious, affecting moments as well as some enjoyably quirky humor. There's no doubt, though, that the main draw for audiences is the promise of cat fights and musical performances by Parton and Latifah, and the film doesn't disappoint. While Latifah has the showier role (she also serves as one of the producers), Parton's trademark brand of corn-pone, self-effacing humor shines through. Parton also contributes a number of memorable new songs to the score, including "He's Everything," "Not Enough" and "From Here to the Moon and Back," the latter of which could easily snag her another Oscar nomination for Best Song next year.
Dr. Victor DeNoble probably wouldn't consider an addiction to Dolly Parton life-threatening, but he definitely feels otherwise about tobacco. As a strapping young doctoral student in 1980, DeNoble was recruited by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, ostensibly to research ways to make tobacco less toxic. In the process, DeNoble discovered a previously-unknown, secondary chemical in cigarettes that actually made them more addictive. He soon found himself out of a job, while Philip Morris covered up his research and went on to market an even more dangerous product while continuing to deny publicly that tobacco was addictive.
DeNoble's story is recounted, primarily by the good doctor himself, in Addiction Incorporated (now playing in Los Angeles and opening January 20th in San Francisco). Charles Evans, Jr. makes an impressive directorial debut (he previously produced such acclaimed films as Johnny Depp's The Brave and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator) and utilizes animation, interviews with DeNoble's co-workers and footage from the 1994 Congressional hearings that ultimately doomed "big Tobacco." Philip Morris and other cigarette manufacturers were ultimately found guilty in a federal racketeering case, a decision upheld by the US Supreme Court.
While entertainingly constructed, Addiction Incorporated suffers at times from a too-comical approach. DeNoble and other commentators also sound excessively rehearsed, though this makes sense once it is revealed later in the film that DeNoble routinely gives his anti-tobacco spiel to school students. I also noticed (and I'm probably being too picky here) that some of the on-camera speakers have unsightly blemishes and/or shaving cuts that appear dramatically vivid in hi-def on the big screen. It wouldn't hurt documentarians from using make-up even while striving for naturalism.
Dolly Parton likely wouldn't hesitate to tell the Addiction Incorporated crew that the more make-up used, the better. Despite their flaws, I recommend both it and Joyful Noise for the valuable, even life-saving messages they have to offer.
Joyful Noise: B
Addiction Incorporated: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.
Editor's note: The 2011 Movie Dearest Awards will continue tomorrow.