Script tease 

Idlewild's stunning set pieces often clash with its clichéd story

Memorial photography, Hong Kong action, moonshine running and Bankhead booty shaking make Idlewild a visual frenzy of history and hep to match the postmodern mash-ups of Baz Luhrmann.

A film whose ATL roots include a Clark Atlanta-grad director and stars culled from the city's house band OutKast, Idlewild is a film that reverts to the original gangstas.

In small-town Georgia, aka Idlewild, the riff-raff with the Parental Advisory attitude are Prohibition-era moonshiners, pistol-packing thugs and tattooed playboys. The fur coats, cigars and macho shoulders draped in slatterns say hip-hop, but Idlewild asserts that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In his first feature-film effort, director Bryan Barber has already recognized an important fact that has escaped so many of the next breed of director hatchlings: Everything old is new again. Barber whips his eras into a delirious frappé, forging a link between the strutting, trash-talking dandies of gangster old with hip-hop's gangsta-lite in the current era of bling. Barber takes his inspiration from the past with nods to European art-house style and old Hollywood musicals, but juiced up with the technical tricks available to a hot-rodding contemporary cineaste.

The film's action centers on two childhood friends: the straight-laced mortician's son, Percival (André "3000" Benjamin); and the devilish Rooster (Antwan A. Patton, aka Big Boi), a man who hasn't let family life keep him from snacking on hot mamas in the backseat of his Caddy or laying down nasty raps at the local club. But the ironcally named Church features very little praying beyond coital cries to the Lord, but plenty of dice-throwing, whoring and boozing to keep things jumping.

When Rooster isn't running moonshine, he's up onstage performing lewd raps. In an increasingly busy array of storylines, good boy Percy, who plays the piano at Church, chafes under the thumb of his controlling father (Ben Vereen) and sets his sights on the beautiful young singer, Angel. Rooster tries to keep one step ahead of his adultery-sniffing wife, and wrest control of Church away from a trigger-happy gangsta (Terrence Howard).

The cultural hop-scotching is fast and furious in Idlewild, especially in the deliriously cool dance numbers. In those, the jitter-bugging condemned in a previous era as salacious public foreplay is cross-pollinated with the wild-style booty-shaking and break-dancing of today, with some Matrix freeze frames to catch the gyrations mid-stomp. While the jitter-buggers jam, Rooster struts onstage in full, pimped-out, fur-coat regalia. Scantily clad dancers back him up with a historical hybrid of Josephine Baker meets "Solid Gold."

Barber is a maestro when it comes to setting music to the kinetic hieroglyphics of sweaty bodies in motion, but the entire film feels like a life-support system for those outrageous numbers. And those interludes only serve to anti-hep out a script burdened with previous gangster-movie staples: the stuttering strong arm, the psychopathic Scarface-brand kingpin played by Howard, the henchman who repeats every word sotto voce out of his guru's mouth, and the piano player who falls for the songbird vixen.

Even if you didn't know wunderkind Barber got his start crafting OutKast's retro-cool videos like the stylish "Hey Ya," Idlewild's trick bag of effects soon makes his origins clear. Barber is a historically minded high stylist, his pockets loaded with visual ideas that feel artistically equivalent to the lush orchestrations mixed with the new-school beat and outrageous male bravado of OutKast's music. The opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission: Layers of black-and-white still images like something in a diorama come to life, and wink and grin like eyeballs moving beneath an oil painting in a haunted house.

But Barber's screenwriting chops are less original. On one hand, there are the musical numbers in which ideas are expressed in novel, fanciful new ways, and on the other hand is the relatively clumsy business of the gangster action.

As is a perpetual problem for cool cats making the jump from short form to long, the thoroughly innovative musical bits hit a brick wall of a story that aspires for some of the big themes of the gangster genre's warring angels and devils, from Cotton Club to "The Sopranos." But with its awkward fit of music and action, the film's rudimentary dramatic rhythms most often suggest another marriage of a hot pop act to story: the occasionally sexy but off-key Prince vehicle, Purple Rain.

For a review of the Idlewild soundtrack, click here. For a profile of director Bryan Barber, click here.

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