There’s no denying Outkast’s appeal. With a sound that blends rap with soul, R&B, jazz, and funk and lyrics that range from thoughtful to sexy to mind-bendingly surreal, AndrÃ© Benjamin and Antwan Patton have proven themselves two of the most unpredictably inventive writers and charismatic performers in hip-hop. And those videos — no matter how sick you may be of “Hey Ya!” now, you have to admit you loved it the first 30 times you saw it. So who better to make a musical — especially with a screenplay and direction by Bryan Barber, who directed the videos for “Roses,” “The Way You Move,” and “Hey Ya!” After Moulin Rouge’s gross excesses and utter lack of creativity and the bloated, logy, and inexplicably acclaimed Chicago (Where’s Bebe Neuwirth when you need her, really?), somebody needed to invade Hollywood and make a musical with some genuine vitality and wit. If anyone could do that, I thought, AndrÃ© and Big Boi could.
So maybe no one can. Maybe we should just give up on the genre. Because the evidence at hand just ain’t promising.
If only there were a backslash in the title — Idle/Wild — it would perfectly describe the two halves of the film. The musical numbers are everything you expect from Outkast videos, full of the swooping cameras, agile dancers, and generally over-the-top fun that’s become the hallmark of Barber’s collaborations with the duo. With fantastic choreography by Hinton Battle (a three-time Tony winner, though he’s still best known to many of us as the dancing demon Sweet on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), they have tremendous energy, sex appeal, and a good-time vibe that puts at least a couple of them up there with any of the best production numbers in recent films. But the excitement and the jazzy tempo they create is so badly undercut by the framing sequences that they almost might as well be Chicago-dull.
Outside of the musical numbers, Idlewild is nothing more than an old-fashioned crime melodrama, a generic jumble of Prohibition-era gangsters and aspiring musicians — any one storyline instantly recognizable from a dozen other films. Barber’s screenplay gives the performers nothing original or insightful to work with, forcing them to rely on their wits and their natural charm. Some succeed, but not all. As Rooster, a mid-level bootlegger and star attraction at Idlewild, Georgia’s speakeasy The Church, Patton is a fascinating and surprisingly sexual screen presence (though even more impressive is young Rooster, played by the disturbingly precocious 10-year-old Bobb’e J. Thompson). But Benjamin, miscast as a shy and demure pianist, squanders his superhuman charisma. Terrence Howard is chillingly effective as the soulless gangster Trumpy; Macy Gray puts her raspy voice to excellent use as the bawdy, blowsy singer Taffy; and Faizon Love is a convincing blend of desperation and self-importance as the upwardly immobile bootlegger Sunshine Ace. But Cicely Tyson, Ving Rhames, and Ben Vereen are wasted in roles that barely hint at what they can do, and Paula Patton, playing Benjamin’s love interest, has a phony Southern accent and over-the-top manner that would be instantly grating if she weren’t so damn beautiful.
Most of the film’s flaws can be laid at Barber’s feet, but he still has a lot on the ball, particularly for a director making his first feature. As in his videos, the visual stylization makes for consistently enjoyable eye candy, and it meshes seamlessly with the magic realism and historical mishmash that allow hip-hop and animated fantasies to exist comfortably alongside Prohibition and the most exuberant swing dancing I’ve seen since those old Gap ads. The problem with Idlewild is that it feels like for every opportunity Barber pursued he neglected two others.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Idlewild / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | August 25, 2006 | Comments ()