Idlewild

| September 3, 2006

With due respect to thinking-man cinema, sometimes film really is all about spectacle: the sheer ballet of eye-popping color, of movement and pageantry, of theatrics and soul, and of, y’know, entertainment. Superheroes, pirates, and snakes be damned, no film this summer achieved the magic of pure spectacle with such soft-shoe ease better than Idlewild, an Outkast-fueled musical designed solely to make you tap your foot with the energy of a Vegas tourist.
The movie stars hip-hop duo Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi as Percival and Rooster, two friends scratchin’ and survivin’ in 1930s Georgia: the age of prohibition, speakeasies, guns, gangsters, dames, and (as Idlewild tells it) one gorgeously conceived hip-hop number after another. Percival’s a shy piano player smitten by Angel (Paula Patton), a mysterious lounge singer (there’s always a mysterious lounge singer), while the ostentatious Rooster uses his relentless guile to navigate Idlewild’s seedy underbelly (because there’s always a seedy underbelly).
Substance and philosophy and even a creative story are all absent here, yet somehow “mindless” isn’t a fair word, no more than it would be to denigrate the terpsichorean glee of Astaire and Rogers for their lack of thematic meat, or even Bruckheimer and his trusty explosions for their inability to say anything important.
Skilled minds were behind Idlewild, and beyond Outkast and their “Let us entertain you!” choreography, director Bryan Barber and cinematographer Pascal Rabaud infuse the film with a visual style churning with a crisp, quirky vitality. The opening sequence, in which Percival narrates his and Rooster’s childhood, could have been a joyless expository exercise, but Barber and Rabaud turn it into a neato symphony of images. Another memorable visual tick occurs when Percival’s despair is reflected via Rabaud’s lens that vertically revolves around him like a planet’s orbit turned on its side. Even a love scene is saved from perfunctory status thanks to Barber and Co.’s craftsmanship.
It’s foolhardy, even dangerous to say that an original story is unimportant if it’s wrapped in enough pretty distraction, but there’s just too much personality and sizzle in Idlewild to dismiss it outright. Hollywood is retooling its franchises left and right to inject more substance into them (next up on the revamped list is an purportedly character-driven James Bond in Casino Royale due out this November), and that’s certainly a positive direction for the art and business of filmmaking. But I hope that the moviegoing public will still have an appetite for glitzy, classy, low-on-ideas, high-on-spectacle films (not flicks, but films) like Idlewild.
After all, “mindless” isn’t quite the right word. After sucking on Idlewild‘s helium for 140 minutes, I would much rather go with “fun.”

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