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Sharp, but without a point: (l-r) Antwan A. Patton and Howard in Idlewild.

The Long Goodbye

By Shawn Stone

Idlewild

Directed by Bryan Barber

Given the big, almost theatrical scope of some of their recent music, an OutKast musical didn’t seem like a bad idea. They’ve consistently made entertaining videos with idiosyncratic touches (like the broken-down home with the leaky roof in “Ms. Jackson”), so there was some cause for optimism. Plus, writer-director Bryan Barber made their most recent videos, including “Hey Ya.”

Alas, it was not to be. While Idlewild has much to recommend it—it has been cast perfectly, and somehow manages to present a hip-hop sensibility in a 1930s context—it falls short. Idlewild isn’t a disaster, but it isn’t much more than a really well-made vanity project.

Percival (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000) is a mortician by day and roadhouse piano player by night. The frustrated musician got the gig through his lifelong pal Rooster (Antwan A. Patton, aka Big Boi), a gambler and singer who is the star attraction at the roadhouse, a rural Georgia juke joint called the Syncopated Church. Though set in the 1930s, the music presented in the club is a mélange of hip-hop, jazz, funk and dirty blues. Percival can’t get a girl; Rooster has too many.

There are gangsters, played with cool restraint by Terrence Howard (explosive as ever) and Ving Rhames. There is violence. Percival gets a girl, the out-of-town singing star Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), as Rooster loses his wife, Zora (Malinda Williams). Will Percival escape his remote father (Ben Vereen)? Will Rooster elude the gangsters and get his wife back?

The plot never rises above the mildly boring and thoroughly predictable until the end, when the action takes a turn so weird, so creepy that it almost redeems the film. (But doesn’t.) It’s too bad, because the overall vibe is pleasing, and the set design so realistic (and clever) that you hardly notice, at first, when it’s totally not realistic—like the coffin-shaped attic where Percival practices his music.

The strangest, but probably least surprising, thing about Idlewild is that Benjamin and Patton ultimately seem to be in different movies. They’re rarely in any scenes together, and, after the childhood interlude that plays out early on (with child actors as their younger selves), their two characters’ stories barely intersect. Do Percival and Rooster hang out together? No. Ask each other for advice? Until the very, very end, no. And they sure as hell don’t perform any music together.

As with their double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast’s duo complement each other now; they don’t collaborate in any meaningful way. Yes, they share story credit with the writer-director, but a couple of plot robots could have produced Idlewild’s narrative in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

The music? It’s pretty good. Benjamin’s “Chronomentrophobia” is clever, and makes for one of the more entertaining numbers in the film (he’s accompanied on the refrain by a wall of cuckoo clocks), though his faux-Cole Porter ballad, which closes the film, isn’t any good. Patton contributes some new numbers and recycles a couple of tunes from Speakerboxxx; he ends up being the most compelling entertainer in the film. There’s one caveat: If Macy Gray had been given more than one song, she might have stolen the picture.

Still, it’s way too long at two hours, and strangely bloodless. If this is, as rumored, OutKast’s farewell project, then it’s past time for a split.

The Stepford Sisters

The Wicker Man

Directed by Neil LaBute

The wicker man refers to a myth-enshrouded Celtic ritual that required a human sacrifice—a male human—to the gods of the harvest. In 1973, Anthony Shaffer’s novel The Wicker Man was made into a movie (adapted by Shaffer) that hit the fledgling ecology and feminist movements upside the head. It’s also one of the most delectably creepy movies I’ve ever seen. The same cannot be said for the new remake. Directed by Neil LaBute with a dulled edge of misanthropy, the 2006 Wicker Man is slow as molasses and a lot less palatable, with ponderous music to match the stagey art direction.

Nicolas Cage plays Edward, a naïve highway cop who witnesses a horrific car accident in which a young girl and her mother vanish into the flames. Shortly after, he receives a letter from his former fiancée asking for his help to locate her missing daughter. Edward hasn’t seen his fiancée in years, and is mystified by her relocation to an obscure island commune called Summersisle. He shows the letter to a skeptical colleague, telling him, “The plot thickens.” His colleague replies, “I didn’t know you had a plot.” Edward does, but Shaffer’s storyline is skimmed by LaBute’s preference for artifice over development. The characters speak in deliberately unnatural speech patterns, to clue the audience in to the deliberation that’s already occurring without Edward’s knowledge. The director’s use of symbolism is both obvious and useless: Edward experiences flashbacks from the car accident during his ferry crossing to the isle, but the accident is never explained. Once ashore, however, he encounters a trio of snide, middle-aged women who express their displeasure at his intrusion by scaring him with a bleeding burlap sack. In the film’s only suspenseful moment, Edward is offered a look inside the sack, and he flinches just before he catches sight of whatever squiggling, injured thing is contained within.

At the local tavern, he squashes a honeybee, earning the ill will of the commune, whose economy is based on honey production. The storyline becomes increasingly simplified as Edward, bewitched by his proximity to the lovely (and boringly ambivalent) Willow (Kate Beahan), becomes ever more desperate to find her daughter, and more easily convinced that the young girl is either dead or in danger. His investigation consists of being inexplicably thwarted by the residents, an almost exclusively female congregation of earth worshippers who are usually photographed in clannish multiples. The few men that are seen are mere drones. A bewigged Ellen Burstyn plays the congregation’s matriarch, a queen bee whose cordiality toward Edward is in pointless contrast to the controlled hostility of the rest of the sisterhood. LaBute spends more time on glittery close-ups that capture both the feminine allure and predatory instincts of the commune’s sisterhood (Leelee Sobieski plays an especially fetching tavern wench) than he does on making any of them even remotely human.

If the director intended to satirize the burgeoning neo-pagan movement, his opinion on matriarchal power falls between the cogs of the film’s mechanical progression. Edward bumbles toward the truth, rather than being seduced to it, and the sisterhood lacks any motivation other than childish malice. Unlike the incisive realism of LaBute’s earlier films (especially In the Company of Men), The Wicker Man resembles a watered-down copy of M. Night Shyamalan’s copying of Alfred Hitchcock. It drones where the original disturbed.

—Ann Morrow


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