The prologue that plays out beneath the opening credits of Idlewild is fantastic — witty, funny, adrenaline pumping, seamlessly edited to rousing music. It quickly sketches the birth of the friendship between two preteen black boys coming of age in the 1930s small-town American South at the height of Prohibition. Diminutive, sharp-dressed Rooster (Bobb’e J. Thompson) is the mischievous half of the duo — shooting dice, running scams with his bootlegging father and dragging the more reserved Percival (Bre’wan Waddell) into the perilous world of male-female connection. The son of a mortician (Ben Vereen), Percival is sparked by the association, and the charge that Rooster gives him also invigorates the opening moments of Idlewild. We’re primed for an exhilarating ride.
Then the story flips ahead several years, and while there are fleeting lively moments and a handful of chuckles yet to come, the air is largely sucked out of the film once the boys become men. The biggest problem is that the grown-up Percival (André Benjamin, a.k.a. André 3000) is a slug of a character whose half of the tale plays like Under the Graffiti Bridge in the Purple Rain. A struggling, misunderstood musician with an angry, dark-skinned father and a mythologized, dead-yella mama, Percival toils as an apprentice in the family funeral home by day, then pounds the keys by night in Church, a rowdy juke joint where Rooster (Antwan A. Patton, a.k.a. Big Boi) is the star of the big production numbers. Quicker than you can say “Vanity was finer than Apollonia,” Angel (Paula Patton), a mysterious light-skinned singer with good hair, shows up and steals Percival’s heart. Sadly, there’s no Lake Minnetonka in which she can swim to purify herself.
The camera loves André; he has an undeniable screen presence — gorgeous skin, soulful eyes, that indefinable “it” factor. What he doesn’t yet have are the chops to flesh out a thinly drawn character, and writer-director Bryan Barber (a former music-video director) leaves hip-hop’s artiest Negro stranded in painfully obvious acting choices: He spends half the movie staring mournfully at the ground or forlornly into the distance. It doesn’t help that the jazz-soaked character provides unintentional confirmation that André’s own public persona over the past few years — one in which his eccentricity and expression of artistic otherness (he’s a post-hip-hop, electro-jazz retro-futuristic seeker) feels increasingly contrived — is simply a reworking of tortured-Negro-male-artist clichés already mapped by everyone from Marvin Gaye to Q-Tip. Patton, a smoothed-out physical hybrid of Alicia Keys and pre-crack Whitney, is adequate as eye candy who can sing. And Macy Gray, as Church’s boozy madam/house singer, gets the movie’s biggest laugh with her hoarse, must-be-seen-in-context query, “How many times you gon’ say ‘moving cool’?”
Rooster’s half of the tale fares somewhat better, because though the character is no less flimsily conceived, it’s a comedic role that’s a natural fit for the charismatic Big Boi. It’s also here that Terrence Howard appears as Trumpy, a hiss-worthy villain who steals every scene he’s in; the ever-typecast (and actually quite talented) Paula Jai Parker shows up as (drumroll) the Ho; and Malinda Williams, playing Rooster’s wife, Zora, makes for the sexiest, lithest mother of six young-ass children that you’ve ever seen.
As Rooster and Trumpy battle for the ownership of Church, and Rooster and Zora fight to save their marriage, and Angel and Percival attempt to escape a fate that has been telegraphed far in advance, Barber tries to camouflage the slightness and triteness of his script with appealing visual gimmicks that make you wish his sense of pacing and character were up to par. The rooster that’s carved on a flask comes to life and talks like an old Parliament Funkadelic character; the camera holds on faces that then swell to fill up the screen gorgeously; dancers are flung into the air, where they momentarily freeze before gliding languidly back to the floor. Yet, the film only rarely harnesses the power of the anachronistic, funk-driven, beat-heavy rap music that swells its soundtrack. Even the intricately choreographed crowd dance scenes, filled with frenzied movement, are more often stillborn than stimulating. It may be that Barber is simply used to creating on a much smaller scale. At a press day to promote the film, a monitor in the hotel hospitality suite played the Idlewild trailer and snippets from the movie on a loop. Images and dance sequences that barely registered on the big screen popped with engaging ferocity on TV, making it hard not to agree with the reporter who murmured under her breath, “I wish I’d seen that movie.”
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IDLEWILD | Written and directed by BRYAN BARBER | Produced by CHARLES ROVEN and ROBERT GURALNICK | Released by Universal | Citywide