Form vs. content: It's the age-old battle of the silver screen, and it's evident once again in Idlewild. To be honest, though, there's not much of a fight in this unyieldingly anachronistic musical featuring the hip-hop duo, OutKast. While Form dances around the ring and flexes its muscles built from MTV-addled steroids, Content cowers in the corner and pisses all over itself. Idlewild has energy and style to spare, but not even its extravagant visuals can mask the hollowness at its core.
The nominal setting is the fictitious Idlewild, Georgia, circa 1935, but it's a version of the Thirties as imagined by a C- history student. Writer-director Bryan Barber has fashioned a fantasy world where a sepia-toned past and hip-hop present do the bump and grind, where rappers sport zoot suits and fedoras, and where whiskey flasks jabber on like something out of Sid and Marty Kroffts' "H.R. Pufnstuf."
OutKast's Big Boi and Andre 3000 (otherwise known as Antwan A. Patton and Andre Benjamin) star, respectively, as lifelong friends Rooster and Percival. Rooster is the bad boy, a womanizing family man who raps nightly at a crazy cool speakeasy known as Church (the name's ironic, y'see). The quiet, painfully shy Percival works with his cranky father (Ben Vereen) at a funeral home. The friends' lives intersect at Church, where Percival plays the piano and dreams of performing his own compositions.
Idlewild marks the feature debut of music-video director Barber, and he lavishes the proceedings with eye-popping visuals that range from loopy camera movement to animated stick figures leaping across sheets of music. The excess of style is reminiscent of another first flick by a music-video director, Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners back in 1986. Like that long-forgotten movie, Idlewild is sumptuous eye candy, and Barber gets mileage from the magnificent work of cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, production designer Charles Breen and costume designer Shawn Barton.
But no amount of razzmatazz can dress up the empty (zoot) suit that is Idlewild. The film dispenses movie clichés as if they were PEZ. Rooster inherits Church when his bosses (Ving Rhames and Faizon Love) are pumped full of holes by the vicious gangster Trumpy (the always terrific Terrence Howard, acting here as if it actually mattered), who quickly turns his sights to terrorizing the new owner. Oh, and there's a requisite love story. Percival falls for a luminous torch singer (Paula Patton, no relation to Antwan).
But these facts are merely a pretense of plot. More likely, Barber stitched together sundry pages from the screenplays of other, better movies. Idlewild is the sort of flick in which a character is handed a Bible, and you just know it's a matter of time before that book ends up stopping a bullet.
The soggy stretches of story get a much-needed break when the production numbers crank up at Church. Hinton Battle's choreography is unique and amazing, and it's further enhanced by a supercharged presentation of quick edits and momentarily freezing the wildly acrobatic dance moves.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the print transfer is stunning. The colors are rich, the blacks sharp. I did not notice flaws such as shimmering or edge enhancement. All in all, the image quality is wonderful.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is more than suitable, showcasing OutKast's genre-bending hip-hop and employing an impressive amount of sound separation in the noisy crowd scenes at Church. A Spanish audio track is also available in 5.1.
Subtitles are in English and French.
A pretty paltry selection. An unmemorable two-minute, 14-second deleted scene features Rooster and his family out shopping. There is also a deleted song, "The Clock," a three-minute, 46-second number of what, for OutKast, is uncharacteristically limp R&B.
Speaking of OutKast, fans are sure to get a kick from two music videos included: Big Boi's "Morris Brown" and Andre 3000's "Idlewild Blue."
Patton and Benjamin might be merely serviceable actors, but their musical genius is not in dispute. In fact, it's only when OutKast's music takes center stage that Idlewild finally sounds as good as it looks. Unfortunately, this empty-headed film isn't likely to win many new converts to the duo – no matter how cool the Church.