André Benjamin as Percival Jenkins
Antwan A. Patton (Big Boi) as Rooster
Paula Patton as Angela Davenport
Terrence Howard as Trumpy
Faizon Love as Sunshine Ace
Malinda Williams as Zora
Cicely Tyson as Mother Hopkins
Macy Gray as Taffy
Ben Vereen as Percy Senior
Paula Jai Parker as Rose
Bobb’e J. Thompson as Young Rooster
Patti Labelle as The Real Angela Davenport
Ving Rhames as Spats
Jackie Long as Monk
Oscar Dillon as Bobo
Jalil Jay Lynch as Cliff
Esau Ali Caldwell as Sonny
Bruce Bruce as Nathan
Bentley Farnsworth as Voice of the Flask
It’s pretty damn good.
It’s also pretty damn corny, but like Julius Epstein once said, “when corn works, there’s not much better.” It’s too over-the-top and contrived to be any better and could only really work as a musical. So it’s a good thing that it is one.
And the music is the reason to watch it. Benjamin and Patton (with writer/director and frequent video collaborator Bryan Barber) have devised a basic Prohibition era gangster story as a background for their newest musical experiment melding modern hip-hop with the jazz and blues of the ’30s, all put together with a great deal of visual cleverness and flair by Barber.
Rooster (Antwan Patton) is the star act of the local speakeasy, “The Church” in the small town of Idlewild, where he has gotten his childhood friend Percival (André Benjamin) a night job as a piano player. They’re both more than content for things to remain as they are – Rooster carousing around town and cheating on his wife, and Percival caring for his aging father, and both men working in their family business, a speakeasy and a mortuary – and have no desire to move on with their lives. Their adult men who refuse to get older and take responsibility for their own lives.
Barber borrows liberally from the Southern Gothic style, infusing much of the movie with a macabre fascination of death and the feeling of time running out. Percival’s room is filled with cuckoo clocks and the motif of time and death figures prominently in the film, particularly in one the film’s best songs, “Chronomentrophobia” (a fear of clocks). In many ways it’s a coming of age story, even if it is dealing with men in their thirties who seem to have settled down in life but are just starting to get the inkling that they’re not really getting what they want out of life.
It’s told as a dialectic, cutting back and forth between Rooster and Percy (who in fact only share two scenes together in the whole film) comparing their different situations and showing how their actions affect the other. That being said, Percy – dealing with both a belated coming of age and a romance – has far more story than Rooster and is given more screen time for it to be told in, which is probably for the best. Despite a rousing stage charisma prominently on display in the many song and dance numbers – Rooster’s escape from Trumpy and subsequent car chase and duet (“The Train Song,” the other great song of the film) with his talking whisky flask, that is the visual highlight of the film and brings everything that’s good about it together into one neat package – Patton is the weakest actor in the ensemble. In particular all of his dialogue tends to be delivered in the same flat monotone style irregardless of who is talking to or the situation he is in.
None of the performances are that great, though Paula Patton as a wannabe singer and Benjamin’s love interest is generally very empathetic and she and Benjamin have decent chemistry together. Rhames is strong as usual, but exits the film far too early. That’s probably “Idlewild”‘s biggest problem, it has a very bumpy pace, particularly in the beginning. Trumpy enters the scene with no fanfare and no build up in motivation, which is one of the reasons why he never works as a good screen villain despite much glowering by Howard.
It doesn’t really matter though – the acting and the story aren’t really the reasons to see the movie; it’s the songs and dance numbers. And for a musical that’s all you really need.