The story in Idlewild doesn't begin rearing its head until nearly half an hour has passed, but it's unlikely you'll even notice. Those first 30 minutes are so crammed with clever visuals, high-energy music and elaborately choreographed bodies careening through space that plot will be the last thing on anyone's mind.
As spectacle goes, much of Idlewild offers one that's fine and juicy, but when the story finally does kick in, it's pretty soggy stuff. Andre Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton (aka Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast) star as Percival and Rooster, two lifelong friends working different ends of a popular nightclub in 1930s Georgia. Percival is the shy mortician's son who plays piano in the club and dreams of having his own music heard. Rooster is the womanizing entrepreneur who runs the joint, and whose brash personality puts him on a collision course with a gang of tough bootleggers run by Trumpy (Terrence Howard).
That's about all there is to Idlewild's so-called story, outside of some embarrassingly maudlin romantic interludes between Percival and a beautiful singer (Paula Patton) who shows up at the club one day. Writer-director Bryan Barber (previously a creator of music videos, including some by Outkast) is only able to make the wall-to-wall clichés bearable by filling the film's frames with frenetic visual tricks, some of them quite clever (archival photography is manipulated to interesting effect), and some already verging on cliché themselves (too much Guy Ritchie-esque speeding-up, slowing-down and freezing of time).
But this is an Outkast project, after all, so it's impossible to get the full measure of Idlewild without considering the music. Bizarre (and, I'm assuming, intentional) anachronisms abound with Benjamin and Patton's hip-hop vocal patterns and other contemporary flourishes flavoring the '30s swing that the characters are bopping to, and sophisticated jazz chords that wouldn't emerge for decades swirl just beneath the surface. It's all completely illogical, of course, but a surprisingly satisfying fit if you don't think about it too hard.
Taken with many grains of salt (and maybe a few stiff shots of Jack Daniels), Idlewild might almost be a period piece taking place in some retro-future. It's just too bad that all those audacious bits of sound and style are hung to dry on such a rickety old frame.
Idlewild 3 stars (R) Stars Andre Benjamin, Antwan A. Patton, Paula Patton, Terrence Howard, Malinda Williams, Macy Gray, Ben Vereen and Ving Rhames. Opens August 25 at local theaters.