André "3000" Benjamin reigns as one of pop's most charismatic performers, but it's impossible to tell from his curiously muted performance in Idlewild, a starring debut that could use more Elvis and less James Dean. Idlewild gives Benjamin free rein to unleash the brooding Method actor within, while inexplicably giving short shrift to his genius for flamboyant showmanship. In Idlewild, he's like Prince in Purple Rain minus the electrifying live performances, right down to an Oedipally charged family-drama subplot that wasn't even fresh when it was employed in The Jazz Singer. What the filmmakers don't seem to remember is that there wasn't much to Purple Rain besides those amazing performances—it was mostly a lazy assemblage of tortured-artiste clichés that Idlewild diligently recycles. Benjamin's OutKast partner Big Boi fares better, but even he's upstaged by the child actor playing him as a boy.
Idlewild boasts too much personality around the edges—especially in Terrence Howard and Macy Gray's scene-stealing turns—and not enough at its center. It's a vehicle for OutKast's music and personality in which the music and lead roles feel like afterthoughts. Benjamin plays an introverted, solidly middle-class mortician by day and musician by night. At a rollicking speakeasy, he toils for libertine singer/businessman Big Boi, whose popularity might stem from his rap performances, decades before rap was created. But when cold-blooded mobster Howard muscles in on Big Boi's business, it could mean curtains for a nascent nightclub empire.
Idlewild bristles with energy and color, but it's all flash with nothing underneath. When a major character dies a terribly anticlimactic death, it only underlines how little in the film resonates. Given the literally funereal nature of Benjamin's role, it's telling that his liveliest scenes linger in the shadow of death. In one, Benjamin issues a tardy yet satisfying tongue-lashing to a boss reduced to a corpse by Howard's itchy trigger finger. In the other, Benjamin transforms "She Lives In My Lap" into a posthumous serenade to a lost love, a murder ballad of sorts. But until he's finally allowed to sing extensively late in the film, Benjamin seems too restrained by half; just because he's playing a mortician doesn't mean he has to come off as such a stiff.