One of the weakest and most ridiculous aspects of popular culture is its narcissistic now-ness. There's often no then or later, and without past experience or the messy knowledge of life, modern entertainment media often seems poached in a neurotic teenage brainpan, entranced with its own ignorant tunnel vision. A quick-fix solution is simply to reach back and engage with yesteryear, and few recent Hollywood films have done this with as much loose energy and invention as Bryan Barber's Idlewild. Set in a 1935 Georgia backwater with a busy moonshine industry and a funeral home the size of Tara, the movie assembles a Depression tickled with hip-hop, digital animation and movie memories. (Barber, a music-video vet, has no shyness about reusing some of the Coen brothers' visual trademarks.) But Idlewild has a sober, loving respect for history and the Old South, and thereby grants itself a measure of distinction.
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It's also the most substantially conceived movie vehicle that hip-hop stars (here, OutKast's André "André 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton) have ever gotten, which isn't saying a great deal. Idlewild's thicket of genre stuff does suggest, though, that ironic riffs like Francis Coppola's The Cotton Club and the Coens' Miller's Crossing are already old enough to be homaged themselves. Tinted sepia and dolled up in supreme period duds, Barber's all-black universe revolves around what surely must have been the era's only nightclub/speakeasy/whorehouse with fire-breathing, body-painted strippers, a cavernous enterprise with chicken coops on stage and a seething backstage warren of clutter that never, despite the film's reputedly tiny budget, feels redundant. The opening-credits sequence is nostalgic and lovely, an archival reminiscence by Benjamin's Percival about his motherless childhood spent in a mortician's office, elbow-rubbing with rum runners, mourners and Rooster, a wily orphan as rootless as Percival is confined. From there, the two pals' stories run more or less parallel: A faithless family man and "singer" on the club's stage, Rooster (Patton) witnesses his boss getting whacked by a rabid hood (Terrence Howard, out-acting everybody), and thereby inherits the establishment's debt and managerial duties. Meanwhile, piano player Percival, who works dressing corpses by day under the eye of tyrannical dad Ben Vereen, meets with an out-of-town chanteuse (Paula Patton, no relation) and pursues an awkward romance.
Ever since Liza Minnelli ceased being a movie star, making musicals has required the steely self-absorption of a penitent -- and never less than when a heartsick Benjamin rises in the morning below several dozen synchronized, chorus-singing cuckoo clocks and warbles about destiny and loneliness. Most of the numbers flow from the nightclub stage, armed with video-rehearsed dance routines and Barber's frantic editing, which always cuts on the upbeat movement but could give you a tic, as well. (When Paula Patton's nervous diva belts out a few notes in a single shot that lasts six or more seconds, it feels like a cold cocktail in a sandstorm.) Off stage, the songs are outrageously wrong but have a stubborn absurdity, especially when Patton's Rooster raps out a duet with his (animated) drinking flask while driving in a dusky, tommy-gun-peppered car chase.
The members of OutKast themselves are a bit of a muddle: Patton, having made a fortune with hip-hop's standard-operating-procedure supercool introversion, rarely opens up and actually acts. (This is a cult-of-personality genre in which the stars rarely take off their shades.) Benjamin, stuck with a mopey role, fares better and carries with him (as in John Singleton's otherwise shruggable Four Brothers) a self-pitying darkness that's not on the script page. But his post-climactic ballad, warbled over an undertaker's slab, can only produce sympathy for the uneasy performer, not his heartbroken character.
Unfortunately, Idlewild grows more conventional and slack as it rolls on. The gang war we're promised never coalesces, Percival's romance takes eons to consummate, and for long stretches, everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to push the old-fangled story over the next edge. I would've appreciated, too, an even deeper sense of the era, when individuals as old as Ving Rhames's crime boss or Bill Nunn's hooch supplier would have remembered slavery. As it is, though -- and easy for me to say since I'm as white as toothpaste -- it's a pleasure to note Idlewild's racial self-assurance, which owns the caricatures as well as the stereotype-busters and bullishly obviates any potential NAACP objections. (Its regard for women, however, isn't far above the hip-hop schema of crazy whores and nagging wives.) The film is so cornpone that class and poverty aren't even issues; crime and decadence are their own reasons to get the hell out of Georgia while the getting is good.