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The term “melodrama” originally referred to dramatic plays that featured music, but over time, the musical aspect has receded in favor of a definition that emphasizes high-pitched emotions and hysteria-ridden scenarios. By current usage, The Quiet certainly qualifies as a melodrama, but it’s no competition for Idlewild (except, perhaps, at the box office, where the latter has already stiffed). Strutting 70 years into the past, OutKast’s long-delayed big-screen music video is a fascinating jumble of old ways and new attitudes, delivered with much flair, if little heart. Whereas The Quiet twists contemporary social issues until they play like burlesque, Idlewild tries fruitlessly to wring emotions from people and events that are entirely derived from genre movies.
Actually, Idlewild begins with a scratch mix of fake black-and-white documentary footage of African-American life in ’30s Georgia, while the narrator lifts a line from Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.” But the bulk of the film is constructed from bits of old Warner Brothers gangster movies and Busby Berkeley musicals, with a few bows to latter-day Prohibition-era epics—The Cotton Club, notably—and Hong Kong action flicks. Despite the film’s abundant period details, writer-director Bryan Barber and stars/auteurs André “André 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton don’t pretend to simulate 1935. Instead, the film takes its cues from the soundtrack, which incorporates classic blues, jazz, gospel, and pop—including a Cab Calloway sample—into music that couldn’t have been made in the pre-sampler era.
The story is complicated, yet easily understood, since every occurrence is a cliché; nothing in Idlewild happens on screen for the first time. Residents of the all-black town of Idlewild, childhood friends Percival (Benjamin) and Rooster (Patton) have little in common save music; the former is an undertaker who lives in the deep shadow of his upright, domineering mortuary-owner dad (Ben Vereen), while the latter runs liquor for bootlegger Spats (Ving Rhames) when not cheating on his child-laden wife Zora (Malinda Williams). The two pals meet regularly at Church, a funky nightspot so elaborate that it suggests a contemporary Vegas version of the Deep South roadhouse. (Onstage, chicken coops frame fire-breathing chorines who look more Cirque de Soleil than South of the Mason-Dixon.) Rooster is the star, performing hip-hop chants with a girlie chorus; bedeviled by stage fright, Percival can’t handle the limelight, but he’s happy playing piano at the side of the stage.
Parallel complications arrive in the form of a singer (Paula Patton, no relation to Antwan) who calls herself Angel and entrances Percival, and gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard), who demands control of both Church and the local liquor franchise. Each storyline leads to death, which in neither case is moving, since the characters are paper-thin. What keeps Idlewild from being as inert as 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ are flashy moves, hyperreal colors, and frenetic editing, which propel the film quickly past its misfires. In classic sensitive-songwriter mode, Percival spends a lot of time in his room, where he’s serenaded by a wall full of cuckoo clocks and where his bed does slo-mo flips to show he’s head-over-heels for Angel. Meanwhile, Rooster is always on the move, eluding his jealous wife, evading a slo-mo bullet that comes at him Hong Kong–style, and chatting with his namesake, the animated cock on his whiskey flask.
The word has long been that the two members of OutKast don’t work together anymore, and Idlewild does seem to reflect Benjamin’s sensibility more than Patton’s. It’s Benjamin, after all, who took a role in John Singleton’s Four Brothers and who developed an interest in traditional songcraft (although his big Idlewild supper-club number, “When I Look in Your Eyes,” sounds less like Cole Porter than circa-1969 Lou Reed). Yet the soundtrack includes a couple of Patton–Benjamin collaborations, and the film treats the two equally. (While Benjamin gets the more soulful part, it can’t be said that he shows any more dramatic chops than his partner.) Barber is a music-video veteran who knows how to move performers through a song-driven narrative while protecting them from actually having to act; Benjamin and Patton look more professional than, say, Prince in Purple Rain, but that’s mostly because the director doesn’t allow any shot to hold for more than a few seconds. Barber even manages to keep the focus on the movie’s two musical stars as they interact with such charismatic bit players as Cicely Tyson, Macy Gray, and Patti LaBelle, as well as Rhames, Vereen, and Howard (who’s playing pretty much the same sociopath he did in Get Rich or Die Tryin’).
Shelved for a reputed two years and finally released in the box-office dead-calm of late August, Idlewild was preordained a flop. Although would-be hipsters often exaggerate it, hip-hop’s commercial power is limited, and even hardcore OutKast fans may be confused by the movie’s ’30s setting, retro-tailored costumes, or playful approach to gangsta-ism. In short, there’s not much of a natural audience for Idlewild, a movie that’s too good for cheap exploitation and not good enough to reach admirers of the films it pillages. By the standards of most pop-star cash-in vehicles, though, the thing is more then respectable. Indeed, the more inspired moments tease that the movie could have been brilliant if only its creators had kept their focus. But then that’s what OutKast albums are like, too.
During its minimalist first act, The Quiet doesn’t behave much like a melodrama, in either the historical or contemporary sense of the genre. The film begins with a closeup of its profoundly withdrawn protagonist’s eye and her voice-over plea “to be invisible,” followed by a symbolic sequence in which that wish almost comes true. Dot (Camilla Belle) went deaf at 7, when her mother died; a decade has passed since that trauma, and now her father is dead, too. So Dot has come to live with her godparents, Paul and Olivia (Martin Donovan and Edie Falco), and their teenage daughter Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), who’s not exactly welcoming. Indeed, the entire population of Dot’s new high school apparently reviles her, save for the cafeteria lady who knows sign language.
So The Quiet would seem to be an affliction drama—and a fairly upscale one, since the deaf historical luminary with whom Dot identifies is Beethoven. The “Moonlight Sonata” and other elegant piano pieces ripple from Dot’s fingers, even as the story becomes increasingly crass. Nina and her proudly promiscuous best friend and fellow cheerleader Michelle (Katy Mixon) are ridiculously mean to Dot, on the stated grounds that she’s odd, mute, and insufficiently feminine. (As though no girl before Dot has ever entered a high school wearing blue jeans and an Army-surplus jacket.) To Nina and Michelle, Dot’s offense isn’t that she’s deaf but that she’s unattractive—a plotline that Jamie Babbit, like so many directors before her, sabotages by casting a beauty in the ugly-duckling role.
At first, Nina appears to be your typical high-school-flick blond beast, but it soon transpires that she has bigger problems than getting elected prom queen. Babbit, whose 2000 But I’m a Cheerleader sent a gay pom-pom girl to a “homo rehab” camp, clearly enjoys visiting major bummers on those pleated-skirt icons of the high-school aristocracy. Before The Quiet has reached its lurid finale, the movie has convened drug addiction, incest, and murder. Oh yeah—and Dot just might hear a lot better than she lets on.
Written by Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft, who developed their Sundancey fable at the Sundance Institute, the script is nearly as clever as it is preposterous. It takes a certain evil genius, for example, to guide the movie’s piano motif to the place where Nazemian and Schraft take it. Their most brazen gambit is to suppose that people compulsively blab embarrassing information to acquaintances they assume are deaf: Olivia tells Dot that the girl’s mom was a “slut,” high-school hunk Connor (Shawn Ashmore) informs Dot that he masturbates while thinking of her, and Nina discloses—well, that one’s a spoiler. This device is an efficient way of passing information to the viewer, but psychologically it’s unpersuasive. Delivering such confessions to any person, even one who supposedly can’t hear, violates a basic self-protective instinct.
Futilely, Babbit tries to take the script straight, even as if becomes progressively more loony. The director, whose But I’m a Cheerleader color scheme was heavy on nursery-school pinks and blues, here goes for muted blues and grays, in the manner of a ’70s Ingmar Bergman film. That’s clearly the wrong model for this soap opera gone feral, whose inherent absurdity can’t simply be ignored. It’s a long shot, but The Quiet’s most clamorous moments just might have worked if the characters had burst into song.CP