Thursday, September 21, 2006

"Idlewild," dir. Bryan Barber (Oklahoma Gazette)

Empty (Zoot) Suit

Who doesn’t appreciate a good tussle between style and substance? The age-old enemies known as Form and Content, always itching to slug it out on the big screen, are at it again in “Idlewild,” a dizzyingly anachronistic musical featuring the hip-hop duo, OutKast.

This time around, it’s not much of a fight. With Form prancing around the ring and flexing muscles built from MTV-addled steroids, Content is cowered in the corner and peeing all over itself. “Idlewild” has energy and panache to spare, but not even the most eye-popping visuals can mask the hollowness at its core.

The nominal setting is the fictitious Idlewild, Georgia, circa 1935, but it’s a version of the 1930s as imagined by a C- history student. Writer-director Bryan Barber has fashioned a fantasy world where a sepia-toned past and hip-hop present do the bump and grind, where rappers sport zoot suits and fedoras, and where whiskey flasks jabber on like something out of “H.R. Pufnstuf.”

OutKast’s Big Boi and André 3000 (otherwise known as, Antwan A. Patton and André Benjamin) star as lifelong friends Rooster and Percival. Rooster is the rogue, a womanizing family man who raps nightly at a crazy cool speakeasy ironically called Church. By contrast, the painfully shy Percival works with his crotchety father (Ben Vereen) as a mortician. Their lives intersect at Church, where Percival plays the piano and dreams of performing his own compositions.

The feature debut of music video director Barber, “Idlewild” is packed with an orgiastic visual flair that ranges from adventurous camera movement to animated stick figures leaping across sheets of music. The excess of style recalls another first movie by a music video director, Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” back in 1986. Like that long-forgotten flick, “Idlewild” is sumptuous eye candy, and Barber benefits from the magnificent work of cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, production designer Charles Breen and costume designer Shawn Barton.

No matter how dressed to the nines, however, “Idlewild” is a threadbare suit of movie clichés. Rooster inherits Church when his bosses (Ving Rhames and Faizon Love) are pumped full of holes by the vicious gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard in another powerhouse performance), who quickly turns his sights to terrorizing the new owner. Meanwhile, Percival falls in love with a luminous torch singer (Paula Patton, no relation to Antwan). But this is simply a pretense of plot. More likely, Barber stitched together sundry pages from the screenplays of other, better movies. “Idlewild” is the sort of flick in which a character is handed a Bible, and you just know that book will end up stopping a bullet.

The soggy stretches of story get a much-needed break when the production numbers crank up at Church. Hinton Battle’s choreography is amazing, and it is further enhanced by Barber’s supercharged presentation, a mix of quick edits and momentarily freezing the wildly acrobatic dance moves. Patton and Benjamin might be merely serviceable actors, but their musical genius is not in dispute. In fact, when the music of OutKast takes center stage, “Idlewild” finally sounds as good as it looks.


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