Directed by Bryan Barber
If Goodfellas and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! were haphazardly spliced together, the end result might be something like Idlewild.
To its credit, Idlewild isn't a vapid vanity piece like Mariah Carey's Glitter or the Village People's Can't Stop the Music.
Quite the contrary, Idlewild is an ambitious, great looking movie that also can't be knocked as simply an extended OutKast music video. However, thanks in part to its outsized agenda, the movie occasionally makes a jarring transition from high drama to musical sequence. Case in point: after a grisly double murder, the movie immediately cuts to a song about the fear of clocks.
Whoa. Then again, in Idlewild, people swing dance to hip-hop.
Setting aside the movie's uneven tone and choppy storytelling, the songs are almost uniformly very well done, which is to be expected from one of the premiere acts in hip-hop. As Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, they take credit as the film's stars. As Andre 3000 and Big Boi, the seemingly constantly-at-odds duo takes credit as the film's music supervisors.
Unfortunately, at two hours, Idlewild is a butt-breaker of a quasi-epic that tackles gangsters, moonshine, infidelity, stage fright, loving mothers, hurtful fathers, death, dreams, and hip-hop; all circa the 1930s in Idlewild, Georgia.
Angel of Idlewild
The story is pretty unwieldy and unfocused, but it's centered around two main characters.
One is Percival (Andre Benjamin), the loyal, shy son of a mortician who has dreams of writing songs that rock the house like Cab Calloway's do. The other is his childhood friend, Rooster (Big Boi… er, Antwan Patton), who is the total opposite. He's a rambunctious character, a smarty with a knack for figures – both numerical and female.
The film starts with narration by Percival as he explains how all the world's a stage and everybody's merely an actor looking for their role in life. It's an oft-repeated cliché and, unfortunately, Idlewild is riddled with similar clichés.
Looking for a nightly escape from the drudgery of corpse beautification, Percival lands a gig as a pianist at the club frequented by Rooster. It's a noisy, raucous booze hall called the Church. Too bad for Percival, he's such a shy cuss and uneasy with the women, he's more apt to puke when put in the spotlight than show the talent that's burning in the depths of his soul.
As for Rooster, he's got a wife and five kids, but that's hardly a reason to stop philandering and the perpetual pursuit of a quick buck.
The two are from different sides of the track and the movie repeatedly emphasizes the different directions their lives have taken.
It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp
The painfully shy one is well-meaning and ambitious, but all his efforts have been directed inward thanks to his domineering father (Ben Vereen, All That Jazz), who's essentially a walking, talking cliché spouting lines like, "Your pride is in your work."
On the other hand, the womanizing Rooster gets caught up in a sordid tale of murder and greed; thanks to a violent turn of events, Rooster finds himself running the Church. He has no problem absorbing the club's income, but assuming the debt is another matter.
Unfortunately for Rooster, he finds himself answering to a punk named Trumpy (Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow). For Trumpy, there's no argument that a gun can't answer.
Other colorful characters include Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love, The Fighting Temptations), the heavyset owner of the Church, and Spats (Ving Rhames, the Mission: Impossible movies), one of Ace's business partners. Rhames is sporting hair in this one and he looks disturbingly like a buffed up Billy Dee Williams.
Thrown into the mix is the radiant Angel Davenport (Paula Patton, Hitch). Well, she says she's Angel Davenport, but in the story's sloppiest subplot, she's actually a wannabe named Sally B. Shelly masquerading as Angel (who in "reality" is played by Patti LaBelle; she apparently makes no effort whatsoever to notify the Church of her inability to make it to the club).
More importantly – and no offense should be taken here – but Paula Patton is one incredible hottie and it would be virtually impossible to mistake her for Ms. LaBelle and vice versa. It's a gaping plot hole that could have easily been rewritten in a more sensible fashion, but as it stands, Sally takes the stage with Percival and the two hit it off, strike up a romance and… Well, this is Idlewild. Happy endings are hard to find in Prohibition-era Georgia.
Perhaps the most pressing question regarding this project is who has the better acting chops, Andre 3000 or Big Boi?
It's not much of a contest, really. Andre Benjamin manages the nice trick of playing the understated mortician's son who blossoms into a stage star. Benjamin also has the benefit of more acting experience than his hip-hop partner (Benjamin was pretty good in Be Cool, an overlooked satire of the music industry).
Also, Big Boi seems most loose and comfortable when he's acting with Andre. Oddly enough, Antwan Patton stiffens up like a body in Percival's basement when he's around women and on stage.
They've surrounded themselves with plenty of top-notch performers, which only makes Big Boi look all the more wooden, but they do get bonus points for trying to make a legitimate movie with something to say.
What exactly this movie is trying to say is another matter. It doesn't particularly glorify violence, but there is a lot of it and many times its treated with a rather cartoon-like mentality in which pistols seemingly have a never -supply of bullets.
After a rough, violent ride and plenty of ups and downs, the movie's closing line is simply another cliché, that when you're in the spotlight you've got to give it your best.
Well, OutKast have been given the spotlight in this movie and they certainly give it their all. But their director and cohort in music videos, Bryan Barber, should have sought out some assistance in punching up the story.
For all its artful flourishes (including fanciful animated sheet music in which the notes dive off the page when Percival's father throws the pages into the fireplace), this is one movie that could have been so much better if it simply had more of a message to share.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.