By Owen Gleiberman
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- In "Idlewild," the madly soulful and enjoyable period musical romance starring the two members of OutKast, the '30s Prohibition nightclub where most of the action takes place is reminiscent of other movie-dream cabarets, like the ones in "Moulin Rouge" or "The Cotton Club."
This one, though, isn't a famous big-city venue. It's a speakeasy in Idlewild, Georgia -- the sleazy hub of fun and danger in a sleepy small town.
It's a place run by croaky hustlers and ice-cold gangsters, where people come to cast off their identities and, in the process, reveal who they are.
The movie was written and directed by Bryan Barber, who made a handful of OutKast's irresistible music videos, notably the Ed Sullivan-on-acid jam bash "Hey Ya!," and he establishes the club as a place of swirling pleasure and danger.
On stage, Rooster, played by Antwan A. Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi), is the headlining rapper, and he clicks out the words with such lickety-split velocity that you're on the edge of your seat trying to take them all in. The people dancing in front of the stage are like a stylized funk mosh pit.
Yes, you heard right: Rooster raps. This is one of those post-MTV modern-music-in-an-old-setting movies, yet here, as in "Moulin Rouge," the conceit doesn't take a lot of getting used to.
André Benjamin, looking as solemn as a statue of one of the founding fathers, plays Percival, who lives with, and works for, his stern, widowed undertaker dad (Ben Vereen). Benjamin brings off the considerable trick of making silence speak, yet Percival has a hidden crazy-cool side. He sleeps under a dozen cuckoo clocks (they accompany him in one of the film's best numbers), and he's the club's onstage piano player, composing music he shyly longs to share. This is, among other things, a movie about a mortician who learns to get his groove on.
"Idlewild" is a movie of spiky delights, a vision of African-American pop culture rising above the sin and heartache that has nurtured it. When Terrence Howard shows up as Trumpy, a dapper, soft-voiced "businessman" who wastes no time bumping off his adversaries in order to take over the club, it is, in a sense, a standard gangster's rise to power, except that it has a different texture from the dynamic among white movie gangsters.
The assertion of criminal power is, if anything, even more of a violation here, since these men presume, on some level, to be brothers. Trumpy puts Rooster in charge of the club, only to drown him in debt, jacking up the price of illegal booze, and the effect of this backdrop of exploitation is to raise the stakes of everything that happens.
The most exciting thing that happens is that a singer named Angel Davenport walks into the room, and -- I don't get to say this often -- a star is born. Paula Patton, who had a small role in "Hitch," is as gloriously gorgeous as the young Whitney Houston, and she acts with an eagerness and hope and pain that electrifies the movie.
Angel isn't free of sin herself, yet when she stands on stage, singing the numbers Percival has written for her, she's like dynamite wrapped in silk. The love story between these two is the heart of the movie.
Can they save each other? By the end of "Idlewild," you'll be yearning, if not shedding a tear, to find out.
EW Grade: A-
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OutKast -- Antwan "Big Boi" Patton (left) and Andre Benjamin -- star in "Idlewild."
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