Idlewild arrives as a bit of a curiosity, especially in light of the talent behind it. The principal draws are the two members of hip-hop super duo Outkast, Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, extremely talented musical artists but not particularly known for their acting chops. Accomplished music video director Bryan Barber is a largely unknown quantity in his first theatrical outing as writer/director. The rest of the cast is peppered with familiar faces, but none so powerful or prominent to carry the film on their own.
And then there’s the concept of the film. This is no hip-hop autobiography like 8 Mile or a shameless attempt by its stars to cash acting paychecks in any available project (I’m looking at you, LL Cool J). Instead, it’s a wholly unexpected trip to the Deep South circa the Prohibition era, complete with its fashion, pastimes, and music. Surprisingly, it’s not really a musical, although many musical performances are included. Instead, it attempts to throw in a little pinch of everything including romance, gangster life, comedy, “a star is born” story, action, coming of age, and drama. It’s almost as if Barber wants to create his own catch-all category, the musical rom/com/dram. The weight of these genre collisions drags the production down a notch and occasionally causes some plot whiplash, but ultimately adds up to an enjoyable mess.
Benjamin and Patton play lifelong friends who have traveled distinctly different paths throughout their lives but still maintain one constant that ties them together: music. Fittingly, that arrangement neatly parallels the real-life relationship of the stars as they have increasingly grown apart and followed different interests as their careers have progressed, fueling ongoing speculation that Outkast doesn’t really exist anymore as they’re both operating on their own at this point. It’s a telling sign that the stars barely appear on screen together as they both follow independent story arcs throughout the film.
Their paths intersect at the local nightclub called The Church, an incredibly large and public venue attracting a clientele who seem completely oblivious to Prohibition. Rooster (Patton) is a star musical attraction at the club, in addition to chief hooch procurer and eventual owner. Percival (Benjamin) is the club’s subdued, somewhat shy piano player with talent to burn and an overbearing dad to keep him in check.
As the film progresses, Rooster finds himself in deep trouble with his wife (Malinda Williams) and the new local gangster boss (Terrence Howard), so his primary concerns become winning back his family while managing to keep himself alive, all while maintaining a running comedic dialogue with his talking whiskey flask. He’s a philandering, scheming, lovable rogue and he is brought to life shockingly well by the novice actor, Patton. He suffers through one of the clumsiest cliché scenes shortly before his final showdown when he comes to the aid of a poor widow (Cicely Tyson) and receives a thick Bible from her for his efforts. Take a wild guess what happens when he later gets shot. Luckily, this also sets up the film’s strongest action sequence, allowing him to get into a bruising brawl, shootout, and car chase.
Meanwhile, Percival finds himself falling in love with the new diva of the club while simultaneously attempting to maintain his relationship and employment with his stoic father (Ben Vereen) at their mortuary business. Percival’s mother died long ago, and his father’s heart died along with her, forcing Percival to bury his own dreams and emotions until they are awakened by the new singer (Paula Patton). Benjamin’s performance is understated to the point of near invisibility, never approaching the promise he has shown in past efforts such as Four Brothers. However, Paula Patton is the film’s greatest revelation, seemingly coming from nowhere to light up the screen with a luminous, star-making performance.
As for the music, it’s a mixed bag and not at all what most viewers will expect. Although Outkast released a new album called Idlewild in conjuction with the film, it’s mostly different than the songs used in the film and should not be mistaken as a direct soundtrack. In fact, three of the most prominent performances in the movie are songs from Outkast’s previous album, which might have been a good idea when it was filmed two years ago but seriously deflates the excitement level now. Of the new songs in the film, they could best be described as hip-hop meets Cab Calloway, a fitting compromise for the talent and film setting. The best use of new material doesn’t occur until the film concludes with Andre 3000’s performance of "PJ and Rooster," an elaborate production number over the end credits that would make Busby Berkeley proud.
Although Benjamin and Patton are the stars, this is ultimately Barber’s creative vision and he has worked hard to inject some flair into the proceedings. The opening credits are especially commendable as they bring to life historical photos and add in subtle hip-hop scratching effects, instantly setting the scene while keeping some modern flavor. There’s also some impressive variable speed camera work during an initial dance number, and a few other CGI tricks that are hit (talking flask) or miss (choreographed clocks) in effectiveness. The film looks great too, with superb cinematography and costumes.
Barber's downfall is attempting to shoot the moon with his first effort, throwing in far too many elements rather than narrowing his focus to one or two strong stories. While he keeps things moving at a nice clip throughout the film, it runs a bit long with so much ground to cover and suffers as a result.
Written by Caballero Oscuro