About a Boi

OutKast's hip-hop musical pays homage to an older South.

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One of the weakest aspects of popular culture is its narcissistic focus on the present. Without reference to past experience or the messy knowledge of life, modern entertainment often reflects a neurotic teenage mind-set that's in love with its own ignorant point of view. A quick-fix solution is simply to reach back to yesteryear, and few recent Hollywood films have done this with as much loose energy and invention as Bryan Barber's Idlewild. Set in a 1935 Georgia backwater with a busy moonshine industry and a funeral home the size of Tara, the movie depicts a Depression transformed with hip-hop, digital animation, and movie memories. (Barber, a music-video vet, has no shyness about reusing some of the Coen brothers' visual trademarks.) But Idlewild shows a sober, loving respect for history and the old South, and thereby grants itself a measure of distinction.

It's also the most substantially conceived movie vehicle that hip-hop stars (here, OutKast's André "André 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton) have ever gotten, which isn't saying much. Tinted sepia and dolled up in supreme period duds, Barber's all-black universe revolves around what is surely the era's only nightclub-speakeasy-whorehouse, with fire-breathing, body-painted strippers, onstage chicken coops, and a seething backstage warren filled with clutter that never, despite the film's reputedly tiny budget, feels redundant.

The opening-credits sequence is nostalgic and lovely, an archival reminiscence by Benjamin's Percival about his motherless childhood spent in a mortician's office, rubbing elbows with rum-runners, mourners, and Rooster, a wily orphan as rootless as Percival is confined. From there, the two pals' stories run more or less parallel: A faithless family man and "singer" on the club's stage, Rooster (Patton) witnesses his boss getting whacked by a rabid hood (Terrence Howard, out-acting everybody) and thereby inherits the establishment's managerial duties and debt. Meanwhile, piano-player Percival, who works by day dressing corpses under the eye of tyrannical dad Ben Vereen, meets an out-of-town chanteuse (Paula Patton, no relation) and pursues an awkward romance.

Most of the musical numbers flow from the nightclub stage, armed with video-rehearsed dance routines and Barber's frenetic editing. Offstage, the songs are outrageously wrong, but have a stubborn absurdity, especially when Patton's Rooster raps out a duet with his (animated) drinking flask while getting peppered with tommy guns during a car chase.

OutKast itself is a bit of a muddle: Having made a fortune with hip-hop's usual supercool introversion, Patton rarely opens up and actually acts. Benjamin, stuck with a mopey role, fares better, carrying with him a self-pitying darkness that's not on the script page.

Unfortunately, Idlewild grows more conventional and slack as it rolls on. It's a pleasure, though, to note the film's racial self-assurance, which owns the caricatures as well as the stereotype-busters, and bullishly disregards potential NAACP objections.

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