If you’re a fan of both the movie Moulin Rouge and the rap duo OutKast, you’ll probably love Idlewild (HBO Films), the new musical starring Antwan A. Patton and André Benjamin (aka Big Boi and André 3000.) If, like me, you like OutKast just fine but staggered out of Moulin Rouge reeling from the quick-cut-induced nausea, you’ll leave Idlewild tapping your toe and scratching your head at the same time.
Actually, Idlewild isn’t a new musical; it’s been finished and sitting on a Universal shelf for two years while the studio puzzled over how to release and market it. Watching this two-hour-long crazy quilt of a movie, which merrily combines hip-hop and swing, low comedy and high melodrama, MTV-era innovation and hoary genre clichés, you can see why. Idlewild has moments of sticky sentimentality and stretches of dull exposition, but you’ve got to give it this: It’s unpredictable. It takes place in a world where whisky flasks talk, cuckoo clocks sing, and the notes on a page of sheet music burst into an impromptu animated dance.
Patton plays Rooster, the owner of that chatty whisky flask, who manages a nightclub called Church in a 1930s rural Georgia town called Idlewild. The ironically named Church is a roiling den of Prohibition-era naughtiness, from gin-running to prostitution to an exuberant form of swing dancing called swop (the athletic choreography by Hinton Battle is one of the movie’s consistent high points). From time to time, Rooster takes to the stage at his club, fires up the swing orchestra, and begins to rap—a musical anachronism, yes, but like the rest of the movie’s historical mash-ups, it’s gleefully deliberate. Offstage, Rooster has two problems: His wife, Zora (Malinda Williams), is enraged at his shameless philandering, and the local mob boss, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), is putting the squeeze on him by steadily increasing the price of contraband liquor.
In a parallel story, Benjamin plays Rooster’s childhood friend Percival Jenkins, a pianist at the club and the son of the local mortician (Ben Vereen). The painfully shy Percival dolls up dead folks for burial during the day and pounds out his jazz-influenced compositions by night. It’s not until singer Angel Davenport (the ethereal Paula Patton, no relation to Antwan A. Patton) floats into the club on a back-lit cloud that Percival comes into his own as a performer and a man. But Angel has a secret—a mightily implausible one, from a plot standpoint—that may drive her away from Idlewild forever.
This all sounds like great fun, and by moments—especially when the swing and the swop get going, or Macy Gray takes the stage as a blowsy blues singer—it is. But as filmed by Bryan Barber, who’s directed OutKast’s music videos since 2002, the world of Idlewild is so heterogeneous, so devil-may-care about shifts in mood and tone and genre, that it winds up feeling like six different movies elbowing for space on the same screen. Rooster’s flask cracks wise in a voice straight from a Warner Bros. cartoon, eliciting giggles from the audience; seconds later, Percival is mooning over photographs of his dead mother in her casket.
Whether the sheer presence of Big Boi and André and the energetic, if not unforgettable, musical numbers are enough to smooth over the seams may depend on your level of OutKast fandom. The casting of veteran show-business talents like Vereen, Cicely Tyson, and Ving Rhames points up the fact that, gifted though they may be, Patton and Benjamin aren’t actors. Patton has a warm smile and a winning manner, but he’s over his head in the tougher emotional scenes, as when he accidentally witnesses a gangland shooting. And the lissome, doe-eyed Benjamin has onstage charisma to burn—amply on display in the 2003 “Hey Ya” video, where he played every member of his own band to the screaming delight of an audience full of groupies. But he’s muzzled in the role of the moody Percival, who, unlike Benjamin, seems uncomfortable performing live. Only during the final credit sequence, wearing white tie and tails in a huge Busby Berkeley-inspired production number, does Benjamin hint at the showman he can be.
I’m not sure if it’s lazy or brave to recycle cinematic clichés as shamelessly as Idlewild does—put it this way, it contains both a gangster named “Spats” and a bullet-stopping Bible. But any movie that features a love song delivered to a corpse on a slab has at least the courage of its convictions, and that takes Idlewild a pretty long way.