Starring: Big Boi, Andre Benjamin, Terrence Howard, Macy Gray, Ving Rhames, Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, Patti LaBelle
Director: Bryan Barber
It’s no big secret that “Idlewild” – the first cinematic collaboration featuring the hip-hop superstar duo of Outkast – has experienced its share of problems on the way to theaters, but after riding the shelf for nearly a year, it doesn’t look like any of them have been remedied. The film is still a giant mess, from it’s hackneyed gangster plotline to the scanty performances by its two stars, and finally, to the scatterbrained soundtrack that accompanies it with every beat. And what was once considered a much-anticipated film within my circle of fellow critics, now feels like a piece of coal destined to fuel the end-of-summer bonfire.
Taking place in Prohibition-era Georgia, where hot music and illegal booze are all the rave, the film stars Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) and Antwon Patton (Big Boi) as two childhood friends from different sides of the track. Decades later, Rooster (Patton) has gone on to work alongside his uncle Spats (Ving Rhames) in the alcohol business, while Percival (Benjamin) has remained at home to help with his father’s (Ben Vereen) mortuary. Rooster also performs alongside Percival at his uncle’s speakeasy, The Church – a place where people swing dance to big band-inspired hip-hop like it’s some kind of underground movement – but when a mid-level gangster (Terrence Howard) threatens to take over the family business and a hot new musical act (Paula Patton) arrives on the scene, Rooster and Percival’s lives are turned upside down.
The first question you’ll be forced to ask after watching “Idlewild” is whether or not this is a musical, or simply a film about music. There are certain rules that one needs to follow when telling a story set in this genre, and while it initially appears that the music has been reserved for onstage performances only (in which case the film could be considered a drama), it breaks pattern with two musical sequences that take place outside of the club – one in Percival’s bedroom, and the other while Rooster is driving in his car. And if this is indeed a musical, then how exactly do you go about casting Ben Vereen and not have him sing a single song? Or for that matter, Patti LaBelle, who shows up midway through the film as a famous musical act? You’ve already done most of the leg work by dragging them onto set, so why not let them belt out a few tunes while they’re here?
It could have done wonders for the film, because the soundtrack (which is a ridiculous amalgamation of jazz, hip-hop, R&B and just about anything else you can think of) is total crap, save for one song (“Dyin’ to Live”) that doesn’t even appear until the credits. Oh well, at least we can depend on some great performances by screen vets like Vereen and Cicely Thomas, right? Kind of. The older actors all do a wonderful job with what little they’re given, but it seems that writer/director Bryan Barber mixed up the two lead roles, because while Benjamin is the stronger actor, Patton is given the much better role. Not only does Patton get the pleasure of working alongside Terrence Howard (who is definitely holding back to keep from making these less experiences actors look like complete fools), but he exploits a pretty cool character trait: he gets advice from a talking rooster emblazoned on his heirloom flask. It’s just too bad that I didn’t have a reliable farm animal like him to convince me not to go see this movie.