Good friends since childhood, Percival (Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin) and Rooster (Antwan "Big Boi" Patton) have grown up into two completely different men. Introspective Percival struggles with his domineering mortician father, while playing piano in Rooster's Juke joint and falling in love with a sultry traveling singer (Paula Patton). The smooth-talking, bootlegging Rooster finds himself in over his head with a rival gangster (Terrence Howard) who wants control of Rooster and his profits. The duo spend their days searching for answers to their troubles, but by night, the stage belongs to them, and they live for signing, dancing, and entertaining a crowd.
OutKast makes their long-awaited big screen debut with "Idlewild." And when I write "long-awaited," I mean that. The picture has been sitting on Universal's shelf gathering dust for some time now, and after a recent viewing, I can see why the studio showed little interest in releasing it: this film is one screeching, mystifying, overdirected, hot mess.
Employing their faithful music video director Bryan Barber to capture this "Moulin Rouge" inspired peek at hip-hop speakeasy life, the members of OutKast have painted themselves into a corner. While obviously a creative thinker, Barber is an atrocious feature filmmaker, falling back on his aggravating music video impulses to throw any inconsequential pretty image on the screen. "Idlewild" thumps around like a dog in heat, with Barber anxiously burning through every visual gimmick he's used to (animation, blitzkrieg editing, and yes, even bullet-time). It's a fractured film that attempts too much and neglects to follow anything through to its natural conclusion. The last thing a production this ambitious should have is a person who has never directed a film before in charge. In the end, "Idlewild" holds a bit of irony because of Barber's ineptitude; it's a film about music, yet contains no rhythm.
There're also some mistakes made in casting. Andre Benjamin can't quite nail the specifics of his character's inner thoughts carefully enough, and while he's improved in features since the film was shot in 2004, "Idlewild" illustrates that he still needs a lot of work. Better is Antwan Patton, who glides around with the right level of bootlegging, flask-swilling sparkle. Truthfully, both actors look terrible next to the likes of Terrence Howard, who steamrolls over his sections of the film with anticipated gangster slither. In theory, surrounding acting novices with veterans should make the leads shine brighter; in "Idlewild," it makes you want Howard to play every role in the film. Yes, even the female parts.
This being a semi-musical, fantasy role playing vanity film, the viewer must get comfortable with the hip-hop and rap slanted soundtrack. Some of the songs are almost period-specific, but the rest are a tuneless mush, completely uncharacteristic of the typical OutKast sound. Because Barber is concentrating on the details of the frame instead of the overall charge of the movie, the musical number are jarringly inserted, often embarrassingly so (Percival's duet with his cuckoo clocks felt like it should have a VH1 bug in the corner of the screen).
Truthfully, "Idlewild" is a series of 3-4 minute music videos searching for a narrative that feels organic. It bops around the frame, sings its heart out, and is bathed in style, but it doesn't piece together seamlessly over 120 minutes, leaving all this extensive effort wasted.
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