IdlewildReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/25/06 15:50:47
(Worth A Look)
“Idlewild” is such a strange creation–imagine a cross between “The Cotton Club” and “Graffiti Bridge” with healthy doses of “Bugsy Malone thrown in for good measure–that it isn’t surprising to learn that it has been sitting on a shelf at Universal for a while, supposedly while they figured out how to sell a Prohibition-era gangster-musical-fantasy starring Andre Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton–better known individually as Andre 3000 and Big Boi and collectively as the chart-topping hip-hop group OutKast–to a young audience that probably has no reference to the time period and an older audience that is presumably unfamiliar with the output of OutKast (unless they heard their smash hit “Hey Ya!” during an aerobics class or blasting out of their kids’ iPods). Perhaps inevitably, the resulting film is a strange and ungainly work from start to finish but it has been done with such inventiveness and seemingly limitless reserves of energy that I found myself responding to it far more to its ragged charms than most overly polished works I could mention.Set in the small-but-prosperous all-black Georgia town of Idlewild (in a witty touch, we do get a glimpse of one token white working in the train station), the film focuses on two lifelong pals whose paths in life, while seemingly quite different, are hopelessly intertwined. Rooster (Patton) is the son of a late gangster who is taken under the wing of benevolent bootlegger Spats (Ving Rhames) and grows up to spend his days running booze and his nights raising hell in the local speakeasy. Percy (Benjamin) also spends his days following in the footsteps of his father (Ben Vereen) by working in the family mortuary and spends his spare time playing piano for Rooster in the club. The friends also have their share of personal problems as well–despite his name, Rooster is more like a fox in a henhouse when it comes to the ladies at the club and his long-suffering wife (Malinda Williams) has just about had enough while Percy has been so indoctrinated by his father to sit on the sidelines in his daily life that the very idea of being asked to take the lead on a song is enough to start him puking.
What plot there is eventually begins to kick in with the arrival of a couple of outsiders. One is Trumpy (Terrence Howard), an underling of Spats who decides to take over the rackets for himself by killing his boss and putting the squeeze on Rooster (who secretly witnessed the murder) in order to take the club from him. The other is Angel (Paula Patton), a sexy singer from the north who comes to town for an engagement at the club and who immediately finds herself bonding with Percival, who sees in her a representation of an entire world that he had until now ignored. This does not sit well with his father, who was devastated by the loss of his wife at an early age and has either decided that he doesn’t want his son to potentially feel the same hurt or just doesn’t figures that if he can no longer be happy, his son shouldn’t either. Inevitably, these plot strands somehow, against all odds, come together in an astonishing climax that involves plenty of music and dance, the satisfying demise of people who deserve it, the tragic demise of those who don’t, a penultimate sequence that literally teeters on the edge of tragedy and a joyous final number to close out the film.
Although the above might suggest that “Idlewild” has a surfeit of plot, all of it is pretty much just a laundry line by which to hang one musical number after another featuring a collection of new OutKast songs that blend contemporary hip-hop rhythms with the more traditional sounds of the music of the period (not unlike what Christina Aguilera has done on her weirdly fascinating “Back to Basics” CD). Many of the numbers are set in the club and are a riot of color, sound and movement featuring roomfuls of people singing and dancing with the kind of simple, delirious joy that has been largely absent from most contemporary musicals. Others are so delightfully bizarre in both conception and execution that you wonder how writer-director Bryan Barber (whose career in music videos has included many of OutKast’s top videos as well as Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” a clip that owes quite a bit to “Idlewild”) managed to get them on film without having his sanity brought into question. One number features backup vocals and dancing by a wall of cuckoo clocks while another finds Rooster belting out a tune while behind the wheel of a car in the midst of a high-speed chase punctuated with machine-gun fire. As weird as those may sound, they are nothing compared to the moment when Percy finds himself belting out a tune to a corpse he is preparing for burial. By any rational way of thought, there is no reason why this collection of production numbers should work but not only do they work as individual moments, they somehow actually tie together into a reasonably cohesive whole as well.
While you might assume that Benjamin and Patton spend most of their screen time acting as a team, they are actually separated for a good deal of the film and the way in which their parts have been divided is a little odd. Since Benjamin has been carving out a side gig as an actor in the last couple of years (having appeared in such films as “Be Cool,” “Four Brothers” and the as-yet-unreleased “Revolver”), you might expect him get more of the heavy-duty acting moments with Patton (whose acting has previously involved only a short appearance in “ATL”) getting a less-strenuous B story. Instead, the relative novice has been thrown into scenes against such powerhouse performers as Terrence Howard (whose silky-smooth supporting turn–perhaps the most obvious evidence that this film has been sitting on a shelf for a time while his career exploded–is perhaps the best performance on display), Ving Rhames and Cicely Tyson (in an odd cameo that sets up the most cheerfully silly moment in the film) while Benjamin spends most of his time acting opposite gorgeous lightweight Paula Patton. As a result, Benjamin, who has the stuff of a movie star, thoroughly overshadows his co-star (though he holds his own just fine in his scenes with Ben Vereen) while Patton can’t help but seem like a lesser man when going toe-to-toe with the likes of Howard. When the two do appear together, however, they have such a likable on-screen rapport that you wish that Barber could have found a few more scenes for them to share.“Idlewild” is kind of a mess–with such a wild combination of elements, how could it possibly be anything else?–but it is such a weirdly compelling mess from start to finish that I found myself growing more and more delighted with it as it went along. Too many films these days, especially those aimed for a specific target audience, are too timid to do anything out of the ordinary that might confuse or perplex potential viewers. With “Idlewild,” everyone involved has instead chosen to swing for the fences without restraint or apology and the results are pure nutty bliss.
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