Wild, wild South

“Idlewild”HBO FilmsWritten and directed by Bryan BarberStarring: Andre Benjamin, Antwan A. Patton, Paula Patton, Terrence Howard, Faizon Love, Malinda Williams, Ving Rhames and Ben VereenRated R/130 minutesOpened Aug. 25, 2006Three out of four stars

“Idlewild”-what a glorious, frenzied mess. What imagination-the kind we rarely see on cinema screens these days. When you see a movie this ambitious and energetic, it’s easy to forgive the lumps and just sit back and enjoy the sensory overload.And there are lumps-but how could there not be? In one two-hour movie, “Idlewild” tries to be a gangster epic, a character-driven romance, a Prohibition-era period piece, a nostalgic family drama and a musical that combines modern hip-hop with 1920s jazz and blues. Styles were bound to clash. Things were bound to get messy. And they do. But there’s also more on-screen life in “Idlewild” than in any CGI-driven, big-budget blockbuster we’ve seen all summer.Andre Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton, better known as Andre 3000 and Big Boi of the (great) hip-hop duo Outkast, have been dabbling in Hollywood for the last couple years, getting their feet wet for their eventual top-billing debuts. Both have been able to transfer their natural abilities as performers to the screen. Benjamin was just about the only good part of the abysmal “Be Cool” and gave a strong performance in last summer’s “Four Brothers.” Patton, meanwhile, gave a solid supporting performance in this year’s urban coming-of-age tale, “ATL.” And now, the two have teamed with one of their favorite music-video directors, Bryan Barber, for their passion-project, “Idlewild,” for which Andre and Big Boi wrote the soundtrack.Benjamin plays Percival, a young man working in the family’s funeral-home business who dreams of escaping the small town to follow his musical ambitions, but remains in Idlewild thanks to a dogged sense of family loyalty. By day, he plays the loyal son, but by night, he joins his childhood friend Rooster (Patton) at the local speakeasy, where the two bring the house down nightly with their bawdy and eclectic performance numbers.While Percival starts to break out of his introverted exterior when he meets the beautiful nightclub singer Angel (Paula Patton), Rooster’s troubles are only beginning. Having taken over as club manager for the recently deceased Ace-thus inheriting the club’s debts to lone sharks and gangsters-Rooster finds himself in the hip pocket of the new man in charge, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), from whom he has to buy all his hooch-at inflated prices, no less. Howard, in yet another sign that he is destined for great things, brings the kind of inimitable presence and calm coolness that turns his character into a charming-but-scary villain rather than just another Heavy.That is the movie in a nutshell, but “Idlewild” isn’t really about what it is about. The plot is just the vehicle for a tapestry of film styles and experiments. There are some brilliantly choreographed song-and-dance numbers, as well as shootouts, chase scenes, sex, death and all kinds of intrigue-all set to the thick, moody backdrop of the Dirty South. While writer/director Barber sometimes falls back into music-video mode in many scenes, he also infuses “Idlewild” with an animated style that brings life to the film, even during times when the plot falters. One character performs a duet with a wallful of cuckoo clocks. A coroner sings to a corpse. The engraved rooster on Rooster’s flask talks to him-and delivers some of the film’s funniest lines. Even when it’s not working, it’s impossible not to admire the filmmaker’s inventiveness. “Idlewild,” uneven and messy as it is, is also one of the most unusual movies of the year-and one of the most entertaining.