Review: Idlewild's Huge Splash

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(Paula Patton in Idlewild).

When the visually-enchanting Moulin Rouge was released in 2001, it caused quite a stir, because it featured songs by The Beatles, Elton John, David Bowie, Madonna and other latter-day icons in a period piece that takes place in 1900, well before any of them were even born. Despite the glaring anachronisms, however, the picture went on to land eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, thereby opening the doors for others to take similar liberties with the costume drama genre.

The equally-blasphemous Idlewild represents the first such attempt to mimic Moulin Rouge’s irreverent approach to moviemaking, here, mixing hip-hop into a historical flick set in the Thirties during Prohibition. The film represents the brash directorial debut of Bryan Barber, who makes quite a splash via an elaborate musical throwback replete with chorus lines reminiscent of an extravagant Busby Berkeley production like Cabin in the Sky (1943) or 42nd Street (1933).

To date, the MTV Award-winning Barber is best-known as the brains behind videos for OutKast, Missy Elliott, Ludacris, Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson. In some respects, Idlewild wasn’t much of a stretch in that he collaborates again with OutKast’s Big Boi and Andre’ 3000 who co-star in this bifurcated, bittersweet tale of love and ambition.

The action unfolds at a joint called Church, a free-for-all speakeasy located in Idlewild, Georgia. As the movie opens, we learn that lifelong friends Rooster (Boi) and Percival (3000) were raised on opposite side of the tracks of this sleepy Southern town. The former is the street-wise son of a moonshiner, while the latter comes from a well-to-do family which made its money legitimately, as undertakers.

As a result, flashy, wheeler-dealer Rooster developed the perfect personality to serve as the emcee/headliner at the mob-run nightclub. By contrast, the shy and soft-spoken Percival, a mortician by day, arrives at the club most evenings to play piano as an escape from working for his overbearing father (Ben Vereen).

The roving-eyed Rooster is married with five kids to the suspicious Zora (Malinda Williams), a shotgun-toting woman willing to go the extra yard to keep her man. Meanwhile, Percy is a lonely, melancholy soul whose spirits are picked up the day that Angel (Paula Patton) arrives in town from St. Louis to perform at Church.
Not surprisingly, Rooster’s marriage disintegrates, just as Percival gradually becomes convinced that he’s finally found that special someone he can build his life around. The only other early premise development worthy of note is the menacing presence of Trumpy (Terrence Howard), a hot-headed, ruthless gangster with little respect for his mentor (Ving Rhames) or anyone else standing in his way.

Idlewild is blessed with a talented cast which includes, along with all the aforementioned thespians, Patti LaBelle, Macy Gray, Cicely Tyson, Faizon Love, Paula Jai Parker, Bill Nunn and comedian Bruce Bruce. Yet, the film is ultimately somewhat of a frustrating headscratcher because it fails to commit to a specific demographic. Visually, the picture pleasantly harks back to the bygone era of the Thirties by way of its painstakingly-recreated sets, classic cars, zoot suits chorus lines and other appropriate accoutrement. Unfortunately, it simultaneously undercuts that sense of nostalgia it might be trying to generate by indulging in incessant profanity, the N-word, rap music and some thoroughly modern dance moves.

This unresolved dilemma might help explain why the release of this stimulating and engaging morality play was delayed for two years. A marketing manager’s nightmare, Idlewild is, like Moulin Rouge, a rare combination flick which refuses to be pigeonholed. Regrettably, in spite of several inspired moments where it exhibits some genuine promise, this desperate attempt to be all things to all people ends up sabotaging any potential the overly-ambitious project had to make a memorable and lasting contribution to the annals of cinema.

Good (2 stars). R for profanity, ethnic slurs, nudity, sexuality and violence.
Running time: 121 minutes. Studio: Universal Pictures

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