Aspirations don't equal results in this uneven musical
"Idlewild" is set in some mystical Georgia town at some undetermined point in the '30s when poverty hadn't impacted African Americans in the South and yet Prohibition was still in effect. The movie's lack of direct reference to the real world is part of Barber's goal -- he wants to create a world in which anything can happen, and in which any kind of musical fusion or artistic expression seems plausible.
Rooster (Antwan "Big Boi" Patton) and Percival (Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin) are childhood friends whose lives converge at a wild speakeasy called Church. Rooster is a flamboyant singer, philanderer and club manager who's gotten himself into a spot of trouble with violent mobster named Trumpy (Terrence Howard). Percival is a reclusive piano player and employee at his father's (Ben Vereen) funeral home. Percival's life gets complicated when he falls for Angel (Paula Patton), the new singer-with-a-secret at Church.
Glutted with familiar moments and leaden dialogue, "Idlewild" gets its life from the musical numbers, which are written by Patton and Benjamin separately and by Outkast collectively. In the opening scenes at Church -- featuring songs performed by Patton and by Macy Gray -- the film explodes with energy, both from the artists themselves and from athletic choreography by Tony winner Hinton Battle. Barber captures the bodies flying through the air in freeze-frames and flow motion and the camera claims a place on the dance floor as another participant. If only Barber's storytelling had that focus throughout. The integration of songs is never consistent. In addition to the numbers at Church, songs are also played over the soundtrack in the background, plus there are moments where the characters break into song -- sometimes in private, but sometimes in the middle of action scenes. It's a jumble that ultimately becomes distracting.
Although the movie is designed as a showcase for Patton and Benjamin, Barber is regularly upstaging his actors. There doesn't necessarily need to be any judgment in that statement. Patton and Benjamin are both completely competent, but neither stands out as a potential acting star -- Benjamin is certainly more nuanced, Patton more outwardly charismatic -- and it's just as well that Barber resorts to the technical kitchen sink. There are wacky point-of-view shots, black-and-white pictures brought to life, comedy amplified by fast-motion and plenty of other tricks, including animated characters (a rooster on a flask is voiced by Bentley Farnsworth).
The human supporting actors unfortunate draw attention to the liabilities of the leads. Patton has trouble holding the screen opposite Howard and Ving Rhames, while Benjamin is similarly stifled by Vereen and Patton. There's also the oddness of a movie that casts Patton as a singer only to dub her voice (Debra Killings gets the credit), but leaves legends like Vereen and Patti LaBelle in non-musical parts.
Taken in pieces, there's much to be proud of in "Idlewild." I like most of the songs and most the of the visual style and the costumes and production design and some of the acting as well, particularly Howard. "Idlewild" is a movie that shouldn't be dismissed and will probably be overpraised in some circles for its audacity, but aspirations don't equal results in this case.