Imitation of Life
Bryan Barber, USA, 2006
Kevin Forest Moreau
No one really knows, of course, whether Idlewild is the final
collaboration of OutKast members Big Boi and Andrť 3000. But thereís no
denying that the film -- a whimsical, visually imaginative kinda-sorta-musical
set in a juke joint in rural Georgia -- makes a strong argument for the
pairís continued creative partnership. Not because itís a masterpiece --
itís not, although itís a perfectly enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours
-- but because it lays bare the bald truth: They work better together than
they do apart.
The story, by first-time director (and longtime OutKast video helmer) Bryan
Barber, essentially picks up where Speakerboxx / The Love Below (and
own soundtrack) left off, with the two stars off in their own solitary
orbits, which only occasionally intersect. Like the musicians/actors
themselves, Rooster (Big Boi, or Antwan A. Patton) and Percival (Andrť
Benjamin) are childhood friends, but donít spend all that much time
Instead, Rooster, who struts through his scenes with the preening arrogance
of his namesake, is a nightclub performer just as at home with the criminal
element of the town of Idlewild as he is onstage. Quiet, reserved Percival,
meanwhile, works in his fatherís mortuary when heís not playing piano at
that same club, a combination performance venue and whorehouse called,
ironically enough, Church.
Both young men follow in the footsteps of their fathers: Rooster takes over
de facto ownership and management of Church when his father, gangster Spats
(Ving Rhames), is killed by his seething enforcer Trumpy (a fine Terrence
Howard). Percival, on the other hand, meekly helps his pops make dead
bodies presentable because -- well, we never really know why.
Supposedly, he feels duty-bound to look after his alcoholic father, but
Percy mopes through so much of Idlewild in a dead-eyed haze weíre at
a loss to suss out his motivation for anything.
Apparently heís a gifted songwriter, although he displays no interest
whatsoever in doing anything with his songs -- or with the comely singer
Angel (a beautiful Paula Patton) who sweeps into the club with the energy of
a star. That she displays any interest in Percy, who displays all the poise
and self-confidence of a wet rag, is one of the filmís leaps of faith.
The others? Well, thereís the hodgepodge of vintage Depression-era jazz and
swing with hip-hop, which works just fine (certainly better than the
period/music mishmash of Moulin Rouge). And then there are the
movieís often-charming visual flights of fancy: the talking rooster on
Roosterís ever-present flask of hooch; the animated stick figures that run
in and around the bars of Percivalís sheet music; the singing figures that
emerge from the cuckoo clocks that cover his bedroom wall for no discernable
Those moments mark Barber as a visual stylist worth keeping an eye on. Oddly
enough, the musical numbers, given his video background, are hit and miss --
Benjamin/Percivalís performance at the end captures a bit of old-school
Hollywood show-tune verve; others, most notably Big Boi/Roosterís ďBowtieĒ
-- which introduces us to the characterís vaunted performing skills -- fall
Will Rooster wrest his club free of the debts it owes to cold-eyed Trumpy?
Sure. Will Percival find love with the sensuous, not-what-she-seems Angel --
and thus find himself? Well, kinda. Each characterís arc is, of course,
eventually resolved, with different levels of satisfaction. But those
journeys arenít the point; you can see the final destination coming long
before you arrive.
No, whatís most memorable about Idlewild (aside from the steely
menace Howard so skillfully injects into his every scene) is how it
unintentionally underlines just how much its two stars need each other. Heís
a serviceable actor, but without his partnerís energy to feed off of, Big
Boi is just another moderately charismatic performer; likewise, Benjamin
seems to need someone to kick him in the ass and make him follow his musical
muse -- as Rooster does for Percival toward the end of the film. Talk about
art imitating life: However much money Idlewild eventually rakes in,
the true measure of its effectiveness will be whether either of its
principals take those lessons to heart.
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