If movie critics gave "A"s for effort, Idlewild would surely take one home to momma. The wacked-out musical film by reigning hip-hop duo Outkast, Idlewild has manic energy, mad flavor, and a hodgepodge of talent behind it. At its essence, however, it's a mediocre drama and a misfired movie musical. That it dares as much as it does wins Idlewild a recommendation, of the American Bandstand "it has a good beat, and you can dance to it" variety.
Writer-director Bryan Barber—the mastermind behind Outkast's music videos—sets a lively tone by marrying eye-catching old-fashioned imagery with fabulist postmodern gestures. After rapidly establishing the childhood bond of Percival and Rooster, two friends from opposite sides of the tracks, Barber plants André "André 3000" Benjamin (Percival) and Antwon A. "Big Boi" Patton (Rooster) down in Depression-era Georgia.
Percival's a thoughtful, sensitive-artist type raised in a mortuary by his tough, resentful father (Ben Vereen!) but dreaming of showbiz success as a pianist-songwriter. Rooster's a, yes, cocky singer who also participates in the criminal activity of the mobbed-up nightclub-brothel dubbed "The Church." Though Rooster has his bad foot in the criminal trade, he idly plans to one day get on the good foot ("You need the spirit in your life," his wife tells him. "Trust me," he replies). Percy gets his chance at the big time when he hitches his star to torch-singer Angel Davenport (Paula Patton, no relation), the exceptional woman who also fires his loins.
Wisely, Barber supports Outkast with a who's who of black entertainment. Rooster's antagonist is Trumpy, a hungry mobster imbued with psychopathic focus by the great Terence Howard. Ving Rhames makes a practiced impression as a criminal kingpin, Bill Nunn and Faison Love offer support, and Macy Gray and Patti LaBelle shimmy through as nasty singers. As for the leads, Benjamin fares better. He's too muted—his best scene is a post-credits number—but he handles his dramatic requirements ably and never seems quite in over his head. Patton, on the other hand, mistakes lip-pursing for acting and betrays that he's playing a boy's dress-up game.
Outkast's creative musical invention arrives intact, but fails to step up to the new challenge of narrative storytelling. The character-motivated numbers are either awkwardly truncated or too overproduced to be dramatically useful (the film suffers from the modern mixing mistake that buries the vocals under blaring musical arrangements); the anachronistic stage performances get more play, though Hinton Battle's dynamic choreography gets abused in the editing room. As Outkast tracks, the music pleases, but Idlewild plays too often like one of Barber's videos "stretched out," a term that the film applies to dead-on-arrival corpses.
In the story department, Idlewild also feels underdeveloped, and increasingly reliant on hoary cliches: when Cicely Tyson shows up to hand Patton a Bible, telling him, "Keep it close to your heart," it's no surprise how the good book figures into the action, and the long-delayed clinch between Benjamin and Paula Patton arrives in a silly slo-mo rainstorm.
Barber's at his best framing shadowy photography and orchestrating imaginative flourishes like a talking flask. One might describe his film as Harlem Nights meets Purple Rain, but when Angel brushes off Trumpy with the line "Can the artist get a little space around here?", you may agree that the question deserves a qualified "yes" answer.