Sunday, January 07, 2007

Idlewild / * (R)

Percival: Andre Benjamin
Rooster: Antwan A. Patton
Angela Davenport: Paula Patton
Trumpy: Terrence Howard
Zora: Malinda Williams
Sunshine Ace: Faizon Love
Rose: Paula Jai Parker
Spats: Ving Rhames
Percy Senior: Ben Vereen

Universal Pictures and HBO Films present a film written and directed by Bryan Barber. Running time: 121 min. Rated R (for violence, sexuality, nudity and language).

Rarely does the failure of a film come so clearly from one single aspect of the filmmaking process. “Idlewild”, the period musical from hip-hop group OutKast and their frequent video director Bryan Barber, should be a boisterous, vibrant, celebration of music, movement and visuals; instead it sputters, spits and coughs like a dying vehicle in desperate need of an oil change. The film is stylish in its visual approach, utilizing animations witnessed by the main characters and still picture movement that brings a unique imagination to the presentation of the images, but it is all brought to a grinding halt due to a clunky storyline and the worst understanding of character and story development I’ve seen in such an ambitious project in some time.

Set in the Deep South during the Prohibition, the premise of the story is nothing we haven’t seen before. Percival and Rooster (OutKast’s Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) were childhood friends from different sides of the track. Percival was trained as a mortician in his father’s funeral parlor, while Rooster was good with numbers and running liquor. The two learned to survive with each other’s help and grew up to share a passion for music, which they parlayed into some minor success at a local club known as The Church.

When Spats (Ving Rhames, “Pulp Fiction”), the gangster who runs The Church, decides it is time to retire, he offers to either allow the current manager, Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love, “Torque”), to purchase the joint from him for $25,000, or let Rooster take over management while he remains on as a “stock holder”. He would clearly prefer Rooster take over, but Rooster’s interests are spread thin due a disapproving wife and an affair with Ace’s woman, Rose (Paula Jai Parker, “Hustle & Flow”). Spats’s muscle, Trumpy (Terrence Howard, “Crash”), lives up to his name with plans of his own to take over the club and the rest of his boss’s enterprises.

The story is so filled with gangster and stage show clichés, that it’s obvious writer/director Bryan Barber has seen many of these types of movies. What is also obvious is that he has no understanding of how to tell such a story intelligently. Very few of his character’s actions are justified by anything other than the way in which Barber wants the plot to go. Each character acts with complete stupidity in order for others to get an upper hand. Spats hands the business over to Ace only because this is the last person any of the employees wish to work for, even though Rooster is clearly the wiser choice. Spats does not deal with Trumpy, as an experienced gangster would, allowing Trumpy the chance to change his deal with Ace.

It is suggested at one point that Trumpy is not the brightest bulb in the circuit, which would be a great reason for Spats not to turn over his operations to this man, but Trumpy’s intellectual capacity to lead is never addressed by Spats or anyone else throughout the film. In a late scene of the film, someone finally accuses Trumpy of being stupid, but his reaction to this attack is uncharacteristically reasonable, controlled, and even intelligent.

Rooster himself is on guard whenever there is no threat to be found, but when there is, he shows no concern for his own safety and even blindly walks into a situation that obviously demands caution. There are angels (an old woman in a car) and devils (the flask from which Rooster gets his nickname and occasionally has conversations with) that don’t seem to realize what their purpose is, which makes me wonder if even the filmmakers recognize them. Nor is his storyline ever connected with Percival’s beyond the fact that he runs his liquor in Percival’s hearse and they both perform (separately) at The Church. The liquor runs could easily tie their stories together, but is never used.

Percival’s story runs the gamut of romance clichés as the club’s new singer, Angel Davenport (Paula Patton, “Déjà vu”), is apparently the only woman he has ever shown interest in or has ever expressed interest in him. Of course, Angel is not what she seems to be and when she realizes that Percival has known her secret from the moment she walked into the nightclub, the audience bears witness to one of the film’s greatest writing atrocities.

It’s a well-known cliché that when parties in love are revealed to have falsified even the slightest bit of information about themselves, one or both must run away from the other in anger and betrayal. And this is exactly what Angel does. Not only would both characters be more interesting and enlightening if she just demanded an explanation from Percival for not exposing her, but when we next see the characters they have already made up and explained themselves to each other. What is the point of having Angel run away if the filmmakers aren’t even going to make them earn each other back?

Even the atmosphere of the film is all wrong. While the whole thing is wonderfully photographed and contains unique technical ideas, such as the talking rooster flask, the writing never bothers to justify the fact that this is a musical. Sometimes the music is presented in the stage show of The Church, but several numbers exist in a pure musical context and require the characters to break into song in their everyday activity. No effort is made by Barber to develop a fantasy context for these outbursts of song (save for the opening of the song “Chronomentrophobia”, which involves a wall covered in cuckoo clocks).

The rest of the film is clearly based in a realistic universe, although it is unlikely that a black community in the south during Prohibition would have been allowed the freedom and riches seen here. Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” comes to mind in the way it also mixes modern ideas with a past setting, but although that film suggests a Bohemian existence in late 19th Century Paris, it obviously takes place in a version of Paris that never actually existed.

The hip-hop songs of this production never quite seem to fit in with the period setting. Composer John Debney (“Chicken Little”) does a wonderful job evoking the jazz tones of the period with his score over the opening credits, but when the music of OutKast finds its way into the production, there is little to suggest any sort of jazz influence and no effort made to tone down a modern hip-hop delivery of lyrics with a more stylized approach to arrangements.

The choice of “When I Look in Your Eyes” as Percival’s breakthrough to the big time is about the worst they could have made. The song reflects none of Percival’s own personal depth or his journey up to that point in the story. Plus it is probably the worst song in the entire soundtrack, suggesting an image-obsessed party man, which is everything Percival is not. There are several songs that are more appealing and more accurately project Percival’s character.

The most disappointing element of this film is the fact that Percival is the only character of depth to be found in the entire program. Every other character is a representation of the worst caricatures of black people to be found throughout film history. Ace is the grossest example, and is not helped by Faizon Love’s ridiculous portrayal. He is a bully, exclusively for the sake of being a bully. He is a womanizer, a shady dealer, is given rewards without earning them, and even utilizes racial euphemisms, such as referring to his girlfriend as tasting “like chicken.” Sure, black filmmakers have as much right as white filmmakers to make bad movies and black characters can be flawed, but Ace is merely one in a film entirely populated by them. I can imagine Spike Lee taking the filmmakers aside and asking them give him a break by never again doing what they did here to destroy the respect for black filmmaking he has helped to build over the past twenty years.

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