Succeed or fail, credit "Idlewild" with one thing: it's not afraid to take chances. A 1930s-set melodrama and a hip-hop musical rolled into one, the film is a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas, viewpoints and subplots that have no business gelling together. And yet, they do work more often than not, helped in no small part by the crisp, exuberant direction of Bryan Barber and his collaboration (following a string of music videos) with Outkast performers André Benjamin (aka André 3000) and Antwan A. Patton (aka Big Boi). "Idlewild" can't be taken that seriouslyit lacks an historical compass and seems to be set in an alternate reality of Prohibition-era America in the Southbut that doesn't mean the picture fails to make the viewer feel. Quite the contrary, and despite their banality, it is in the gradual emotional involvement of plot and character that helps to smooth over the long patches where writer-director Barber forgets he's making a musical.
Opening up with a deceptive flashback to the childhood friendship between smooth wheeler-dealer Rooster (Bobb'e J. Thompson) and the more serious and reserved Percival (Bre'wan Waddell), "Idlewild" skips forward by about fifteen years to tell two alternating storylines that only sporadically converge. Percival (played in adulthood by André Benjamin) toils away as a piano player at happenin' Idlewild, Georgia, nightclub nicknamed "Church," while working with his widowed father (Ben Vereen) as a funeral director. Rooster (Antwan A. Patton), meanwhile, is a star performer, a mover and shaker, and a family man who also happens to cheat on long-suffering wife Zora (Malinda Williams) any chance he gets. When club owner Ace (Faizon Love) is murdered in cold blood by quietly menacing gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard), who controls the flow of alcohol within the establishment, Rooster finds himself promoted to head manager and in over his head. As for Percival, his resolved lot in life as an underappreciated musician and mortician by trade is tested with the appearance of the club's newest singer, Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), an up-and-comer with a few skeletons in her closet who wants him to run away with her to Chicago.
On several occasions, "Idlewild" inventively juxtaposes the lives of Rooster and Percival, separate but circulating within Idlewild's dusty landscape, so that it seems like they are coexisting in the same scenes. This helps to a point in connecting their individual plot threads, but is unable to find relevance or a payoff to their simultaneously close and distant relationship. Viewed as independent stories occupying a single film, both halves work quite well. Director Bryan Barber keeps the pace hopping and the visuals poppingmost indelible is a wall of cuckoo clocks in Percival's bedroom that join in on a musical numbertreating the characters with an honesty that, like 2001's groundbreaking "Moulin Rouge
," doesn't pay any mind to the fact that they inhabit a fantasy version of history, in this case combining time periods and featuring modern-day hip-hop sounds.
The song performances, most but not all of them happening on the club stage, are full of the glitz, energy, and razzmatazz one would expect of a big-screen musical. Macy Gray (2005's "Domino
"), as stuck-up diva Taffy, starts things off on the right foot with a jazzy, beautifully performed number that poses as the audience's introduction to "Church." The other songs that follow are just as cogently choreographed and shot, including a somewhat creepy but nonetheless touching scene where Percival sings to a corpse while he prepares the deceased for its funeral, but there aren't enough of them. The middle act of "Idlewild" mostly does away with the music altogether and squanders a lot of chances to use its talented cast. When characters abruptly begin singing in their own lives, it is jarring because this stylistic tactic is so sparingly incorporated. If one can just accept the film for what it is, and take in all of its additional oddball quirksi.e. animated music sheet notes and a talking flaskthen the film actually becomes a lot more fun than expected.
The unevenness of the picture's parts, mixing a straight old-time soap opera with a more up-to-date musical flair, is less intrusive because of the top-notch performances. Outkast members André Benjamin (2005's "Be Cool
") and Antwan A. Patton (2006's "ATL") may be musicians first and foremost, but they have a chance at film stardom if their captivating turns as Percival and Rooster are any indication. They hold "Idlewild" together without breaking a sweatit is up to them to carry the entire movie on their backs, after alland have created magnetic, fully realized characters that the viewer wants to follow for two hours. As singer-with-a-secret Angel Davenport, Paula Patton (2005's "Hitch
") is a ravishing screen presence of brains, beauty and depth, and even gets to share a steamy sex scene with André Benjamin's Percival that is depicted as more than just an incoherent series of close-up body parts (see the recent "The Illusionist
" for an example of such a scene done very wrong). There isn't a weak link in the cast, in fact, with Terrence Howard (2005's "Crash
") memorably inhabiting the cold-as-ice, smooth-as-silk villain of the piece, Trumpy, and Cicely Tyson (2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie
") poignantly standing out in a cameo as a penniless woman whom Rooster has a life-altering encounter with.
On its road to an upbeat ending that strikes a slightly false note are a series of plot turns maybe too dark for their own good. These tragic occurrences serve a purpose in that they provoke Percival's and Rooster's respective change in character, but they don't exactly send the viewer out on a bubbly high as expected. Regardless of its problems, "Idlewild" overcomes all of them by way of infectious energy, sparkling technical creditsthe cinematography by Pascal Rabaud is especially eye-catchingand overall ambition. The plot proper may be old-hat, but the imaginative treatment it receives in the genre-smashing "Idlewild" brings welcome new life to the familiar.