This 1930s convoluted, churning musical drama starring the members of OutKast has been idling on studio shelves for many months for good reason. It will appeal most to urban audiences beside the group's fanbase.
Idlewild is unable to connect off of its snazzy ambitious conceits because of a storyline far too commonplace with a passion for song and dance.
It's sort of like Moulin Rouge harnessed in rap video form by way of The Cotton Club and HBO's departed "Six Feet Under."
The leading twosome, Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, are cast as Percival and Rooster. Friends since childhood in Idlewild, Georgia, they're looking to do much better for themselves.
It turns out Percival is stuck helping his mortician dad (Ben Vereen) embalming corpses. Rooster isn't very altruistic when it concerns family. He's into the moonshine business and moonlighting as a performer in intimate, smoky jazz venues. Percival is hitting the keys on the piano at Rooster's club when he's not working on the dead people. A threat to Rooster's opportunities is a dapper ruffian, acted with urbane cool by an underused Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow).
Director-writer Bryan Barber does what he can to make elaborate choreography and visuals wildly entertaining. Too bad he can't offer any sweet narrative moves to offset the non-stop trickery on-screen. That includes Percival's cuckoo clock wall and Rooster's jive-talking flask. The musical notes on the page even take on animated form and try to hop to safety when tossed into a fireplace. Recurring still shots in black-and-white have objects and characters moved to the foreground to convey a sense of time and place.
How the Outkast songs are integrated into the jazz era demonstrates some creative staging even if it's hard not to feel anachronistic about the result. The aural and visual trappings actually outweigh individual performances, notably by Benjamin (Four Brothers, Be Cool) and Paula Patton, as the singer looking for the bright lights and big cities, Angel, exuding some of the beauty of a younger Diahann Carroll. The former is more mopey and subdued, mostly, until the lively showstopping Chicago-esque end credits. Patton's Rooster definitely looks and sounds fine, but isn't able to provide little in the form of characterization. Meanwhile, Howard projects that natural veteran charisma, an intensity that doesn't make the proceedings more than a superficial escapade with sex, violence (mainly gunplay), and some unflattering talk.
Barber idles fairly wildly to keep the audience watching in flourishes that you wouldn't see on stage in the hit "High School Musical." The romantic trappings may keep the busy, zealous goings-on somewhat involving when Percival and Angel are together, yet never have much of an effect the way the outlandish interludes did in the Busby Berkeley-inspired Moulin Rouge.
Thus, the cliched material and the state-of-the-art effects and editing ultimately bring little pay-off to the frenetic climax with the final "six-months-later" passage hardly an afterthought. With such an attractively diverse black cast, including Malinda Williams, Ving Rhames, a mouthy Macy Gray, Patti LaBelle, and Cicely Tyson, Idlewild is a muddle, a milquetoast of a motion picture that persists with embellishment as a long music video.