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Imitation of Life



Bryan Barber, USA, 2006

Rating: 3.7


Posted: August 29, 2006

By 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 the filmís 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 together.

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 reason.

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 strangely flat.

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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