Idlewild (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For today's audiences, for whom the 1980s are ancient history, how is it possible to generate interest in a Prohibition-era period piece set in the town of Idlewild, Georgia? First-time director Bryan Barber has what he hopes is the answer: gather a cast of dynamic performers and develop a soundtrack that relies not upon blues and jazz standards of the day, but on hip-hop music (not unlike the approach used by Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge). Unfortunately, while Barber has assembled some of these pieces, he has ignored a critical one. His script is a shaky affair - not really the kind of material that provides a solid foundation. It is riddled with clichés and includes a number of jarring transitions. Despite the best efforts of Barber the director, he never quite overcomes the shortcomings of Barber the writer.

Idlewild doesn't neatly fall into the "musical" category, because there are only about five production numbers consuming maybe 15 minutes of screen time (and three of them appear on stage at the club), but there's enough singing and dancing to generate some up-tempo energy. There are times when the movie looks like it was produced for MTV, so it should come as no surprise to learn that Barber's previous day job was making videos for Outkast (the hip-hop duo consisting of André "3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, the stars of Idlewild). The mid-1930s era is stylishly re-created, but the hip-hop slant to the music takes the story out of time. Often, it doesn't feel like a period piece. That's not necessarily a negative, but being aware of it sets expectations.

The film follows the parallel lives of two childhood best friends: Percival (André Benjamin) and Rooster (Antwan Patton), who have taken very different paths into adulthood. Percival is a hard-worker, spending his days working alongside his father (Ben Vereen) at a mortuary while pursuing his true love, music, by nights at a club called "Church." Rooster is Chruch's main attraction, as well as the heir apparent to the owner, Ace (Faizon Love). Despite having a wife and five children, he's a hard drinker and a womanizer, while Percival doesn't have a girlfriend until he becomes involved with Angel (Paula Patton), the club's new female star. Things take a turn when gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard) kills both his boss, Spats (Ving Rhames), and Ace. That leaves Rooster in charge of the club with Trumpy as his moonshine supplier. The two don't get along, and a clash is inevitable.

There's no denying the talent involved in Idlewild. Benjamin and to a lesser degree Patton, despite not having lengthy acting resumes, acquit themselves admirably and rarely seem out of their depth amidst a sea of more experienced performers. Paula Patton is stunning as Angel, especially during her breakout musical number. The likes of Ben Vereen, Ving Rhames, Cicely Tyson, Patti LaBelle, Macy Gray, and Bill Nunn make appearances. (Although one has to wonder why Barber doesn't give LaBelle an opportunity to sing or Vereen a chance to sing and/or dance. If you have talent like that, why not use it to its maximum advantage?) Meanwhile, Terrence Howard relishes the chance to play a one-dimensional villain.

Outkast fans will presumably flock to theaters to see this movie, but one has to wonder whether there's wider appeal. The tone is schizophrenic, with the musical and fantasy elements not always meshing effectively with the harder-edged gangster components. In particular, the talking liquor flask and the animated musical notes are out-of-place. Idlewild is too serious, and ultimately too tragic, for magical realism to be at home. Despite its efforts to be fresh, Idlewild rarely escapes the orbit of familiarity. There's only so much the variances in style and tone can accomplish. In this case, they make the product diverting, but not special. There's nothing compelling about the characters or story, and that maroons Idlewild within the category of disposable entertainment.

Idlewild (United States, 2006)

Director: Bryan Barber
Cast: André Benjamin, Antwan Patton, Paula Patton, Terrence Howard, Faizon Love, Ving Rhames, Malinda Williams, Paula Jai Parker
Screenplay: Bryan Barber
Cinematography: Pascal Rabaud
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1