Dir. and writ. Bryan Barber; feat. André Benjamin, Antwan Patton, Paula Patton, Terrence Howard, Faizon Love, Macy Gray, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn (R)
A textbook model is Purple Rain. When you think back on that film, you may recall some silly dialogue about purification in the waters of Lake Minnetonka — but you’re more likely to remember the way Prince looked under the spotlight in a smoky club, and what it felt like to hear “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today 2 get through this thing we call life ... ” all through the summer of 1984. (Younger readers: substitute “Lose Yourself” and the fall of ’02.)
Trouble is, Idlewild boasts most of the drawbacks of the crossover film and barely a trace of its expected compensations. Its novice director, music-vid vet Bryan Barber, scored some legit actors but has no idea what to do with them; his ear for dialogue is exemplified by the line, “You’re cute, piano player — got a name?”
Worse, with the exception of a couple of early scenes, this music-industry man acts as if music were incidental to the film — and he certainly doesn’t provide the show-stopping moments his stars need. In the juiciest musical number, OutKast members André Benjamin and Antwan Patton aren’t even the focus: A raunchy Macy Gray, presiding over the debauchery at a nighclub ironically named Church, establishes a Cotton Club-meets-Moulin Rouge (the movie, that is) vibe that almost (but not quite) justifies the anachronistic hip-hop that will appear later. A crew of swing dancers hold the floor with impressive moves, photographed as if in a Gap ad — but they pretty much vanish by the time the film’s stars come into focus.
As for those stars: I hope Big Boi partisans won’t be offended at the suggestion that he’s not the half of OutKast who deserves entry into the pop-cult pantheon. He’s adequate here, as a philandering family-man out to make a buck with bootleg hooch. But his partner André 3000 is the would-be icon, and the movie does him wrong by taming his freaky side. As an actor, André is doing the right thing, underplaying his role as the sensitive mortician’s son (the family dynamic here owes a bit to Purple Rain) and trusting that the movie will provide its own flamboyance.
But aside from the costumes (which offer enough wild stripe-and-plaid combinations to rival an OutKast photo shoot) and a couple of kooky CG diversions involving birds, Idlewild is limp in the thrills department. It romps through its generic gangster stuff while its anything-but-generic star sits patiently on a piano bench, waiting for his big moment. By the time it comes — just before the credits roll — it’s way too late.