U.S. Release Date: August 25, 2006
Distributor: Universal
Composer: John Debney
Cast: Andre Benjamin, Paula Patton, Terrence Howard
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violence, sexuality, nudity and language)

Foul-Mouthed Musical Isn’t All That Jazz
by Scott Holleran

Don't be bamboozled by the flashy, trashy and ultimately common Idlewild, a hodgepodge combining modern vulgarity with classic jazz. Any movie that features seasoned Ben Vereen and striking Cicely Tyson and wastes them both is hopelessly unhip to its finest assets.

Not that writer and director Bryan Barber doesn't deserve points for effort. He tries very hard to meld the culture's current thug worship with a period gangster musical. Wowed by music video style over substance, Idlewild doesn't work—it doesn't break a sweat.

The movie's strictly standard-issue theme is that happiness and making music don't mix, or, to crow is to suffer. Though smoothed over with redemption in a minor key, it's hardly an engaging musical foundation.

Long scenes of racy material undercut the more ambitious song and dance routines and obscure the picture's star cameos by Mr. Vereen (Roots, All That Jazz) and Miss Tyson (Sounder), both of whom deserve better. If there's a vile term in the English language, it's in this movie many times over. The slime slips out so fast it needs subtitles.

Idlewild serves a plodding plot about two musicians (Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton) at a gangster club in the 1930s. One's named Rooster (one-note Patton) and he's bad and one's named Percival (Benjamin, faring better) and he's good, and it's obvious what will happen to both for anyone familiar with this brand of determinism.

As boys, the pair huddles under the table and sneaks a peek at the ladies' pink satin panties. The music matters and, as adults, they take the stage at a sleazy flophouse that scratches the itch. Percival plays piano and Rooster performs with painted female dancers flouncing about. It's not as awful as it sounds. Some of Barber's creative touches stand alone and hold a certain curious attention.

Percival falls for radiant Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), a rising star booked at the dive on her way up. They're the only two to care about in this town, where most everyone is crooked—and Idlewild, tellingly, regards corruption as proof of being cool. Percival's mortician father's (Mr. Vereen) insistence that his son take pride in his work is a laugh line. Virtue is constantly mocked.

That makes Idlewild seriously overcooked. When not exploding with jive talk, cuckoo clocks, freeze frames and Crouching Tiger acrobatics—this is one unusually hoppin' small town—Idlewild spins a typical yarn with rival thugs Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard and assorted rats played by Faizon Love, Paula Jai Parker and singer Macy Gray, all of whom barely register on the Richter scale. They sing, dance, spread their legs, bump, grind and pump bullets for close to two hours. Malinda Williams as Rooster's wife Zora stands out in a cast of thousands.

The boilerplate plot and characters might be tolerable if the music had been better. The soundtrack is sandwiched between a few minutes of jazz and many more of hip hop. Either way, it tanks big time. Angel's and Percival's signature number scores the movie's lone hit, but the tune ends too soon and it never comes back. A talking rooster flask and other audio-visual flights of fancy further disrupt the proceedings.

Miss Tyson briefly appears as a babbling Bible Belter—in seconds she takes one's breath away—razor sharp Mr. Vereen is reduced to a doddering old fool and, besides singer Patti Labelle as a busty diva, they do not justify a visit to Idlewild.

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