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American Idol Recap: Jamie Foxx, Movie Star and T-Shirt Dispenser

Last night’s episode of American Idol featured the top four performing the "songs of the cinema" with the help of guest mentor Jamie Foxx. His mentoring stint last season might have been a bust, but last night he actually bared more teeth than any other mentor this season. The actor showed up with two piles of T-shirts, one labeled "Contestant" and the other labeled "Artist." He told each singer to prove to him during rehearsals that they deserved to get the Artist tee, someone "who you want to see in concert, whose records we’re going to buy."

Now of course most of the guest mentors say they’re going to be hard, but they usually melt when dealing with the doe-eyed hopefuls face-to-face. That’s why you have to hand it to Foxx — he only handed out three "artist" tees, meaning he literally labeled one of the four as a lesser singer. It might sound a bit fascist at first, but then again, what’s more American than a free T-shirt? (Answer: Crystal Bowersox’s boyfriend wearing wind pants covered in the stars n’ bars.)

Never one to pass up some free swag, Ryan insisted on being given a tee but looked a little sad when Foxx gave him a "contestant" one. Apparently Jamie isn’t familiar with the fine art of pretending that the debut of a Ford commercial is a big deal.

Lee DeWyze was first up with Seal’s "Kiss From a Rose," which was actually released as a single well before its inclusion on the Batman Forever soundtrack, making its "song of the silver screen" status debatable. But then again, who can hear the line, "When it snows/My eyes become large/And the light you can shine can be seen" without thinking of Jim Carrey’s Devo-reject version of the Riddler?

Foxx gave Lee the "artist" tee, but the paint salesman didn’t do much to justify that gift last night. He kept the song’s basic instrumentation and tempo, which was clearly a mistake given that he was recasting the R&B ballad for his whole alt-rock growl delivery. He was off-pitch during the verses, although he did sound comfortable on the big, sweeping choruses. Even that was a minor victory: When you’re singing a song as self-serious as "Kiss From a Rose," you best make it so inspiring or heartbreaking that Kara starts to cry. Randy had it right (wow, go figure!) when he ordered DeWyze to "just be a rocker."

Michael Lynche went next with Michael Jackson’s "Will You Be There," a.k.a., the Free Willy song. During rehearsals Mike forgot or hadn’t quite figured out his vocal runs, so Jamie Foxx obligingly tried to loosen him up by dancing around and asking the Big Man to throw some punches at him. Still unimpressed by Mike the singer and Mike the personal trainer, Foxx gravely handed him the "contestant" T-shirt. Lynche tried to protest and earn himself another shot, but Foxx was basically like, "No, I’m only getting paid to talk to you for seven minutes. Take the shirt."

In spite of failing the T-shirt test, Mike’s "Will You Be There" was a step up from Lee’s performance; it held together as a whole stylistically and his voice was at least in pitch. But given that the song is an automatic smile-inducer (it’s impossible not to picture a killer whale launching through the air and spiraling over a small boy’s head), his version somehow failed to induce any sort of emotional response. His attitude and delivery tapped less into a desire for spiritual liberation and more into an ambition for making the top three (which, in spite of what Ellen told him, is a fine goal considering the foregone conclusion of a Crystal/Lee showdown).

The judges were unimpressed, particularly since Simon had no idea what a Free Willy was. (Don’t feel too slighted, Orcas of the world; Simon didn’t know the plot to The Graduate, either.)

Then to pad out the hour (or rather, entertain us!) Crystal and Lee duetted on "Falling Slowly" from Once. The deceptively simple song from the low-budget Irish indie was given a straightforward but sufficiently adorable treatment from this season’s front-runners. They actually impressed with their seemingly effortless ability to play off of each other’s voices, providing the night with the first performance that actually qualified as entertainment.

The judges cooed: Ellen called them the new Captain and Tennille (apparently meant as a compliment) and Kara loved their chemistry, while Simon did the fake out. "It was not a good song," he said with a significant pause. "It was a fantastic song." Cue confetti and thunderous applause.

Of course, since a girl and a boy just sang a song to each other, Ryan had to try to tease something out of it, and Crystal was kind enough to throw him a bone by saying Lee had been her "musical crush" since she met him at the Chicago auditions. Thanks for playing the game, Crystal.

Casey James went all softie again with Simon & Garfunkel’s "Mrs. Robinson." Not quite feeling the emotion during rehearsal, Foxx ordered Casey to "seduce me," then made clear he didn’t want to actually go Lonesome Cowboys with fellow Texan Casey. "It wasn’t really about him seducing me," Foxx assured us and then launched into a nonsense showbiz explanation that you can get away with when you have an Oscar. Regardless, Casey got his "artist" shirt.

Casey’s mandolin-style version of the Graduate tune was ostensibly vulnerable and heartfelt (like his much-lauded "Jealous Guy"), but it was more akin to a laid-back, forgettable Jack Johnson tune. At its best it brought to mind the Hollies, but given the turquoise faux-leather jacket he was wearing it was really more Herman’s Hermits — and an unholy marriage between Jack Johnson and Peter Noone is probably not your best way to assure a top three spot.

Casey’s cover might have been an honest failure, but Randy’s critique of it was a premeditated, labored disaster. Not ready to stop beating the Kara-the-Cougar-chasing-Casey-the-Hunk running joke until it turns into a blue paste on the stage, Randy loudly and repeatedly questioned whether Kara was the older seductress of which Casey sang and then waited for the laughs to roll in. Randy is the only person who can make you long for the relative freshness of a "Plastics" joke.

Always ready to save a slow-moving episode, Crystal Bowersox stepped in and announced she would be singing the Kenny Loggins song from Caddyshack. Even if you don’t go for the complicated wit of people thinking a candy bar in a pool is poop, you have to love and respect Bowersox for choosing a song most commonly associated with the image of a dancing gopher.

When playing for Foxx, a starstruck Crystal messed up "I’m Alright" and let a Caddyshack-appropriate vulgarity loose. Foxx urged her never to let an error stop a performance, then waxed poetic about her big blue eyes. That smoothie.

But there were no hitches when she hit the stage — Bowersox brought back the Joplin wail, her vintage lamp/bong mic stand and country-folk rock vibe that’s made her this season’s favorite. In spite of the spare instrumentation (it was just her guitar and some Latin drums) she gave the song a full, sassy rabble-rousing vibe that, as Ellen and Kara posited, made it actually a better version than the original. And for those who aren’t on the Kenny Loggins train, it did more than make the tune bearable; it made it sound like the kind of performance you would love to hear in concert.

The night ended with Casey and Mike pairing up for Bryan Adams’s "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" from Don Juan DeMarco. Casey opened with some proficient Spanish guitar work, but his vocals were a bit weak, and while Mike picked up the slack with some impassioned crooning, it was hard to get over how inherently lame the song is and how silly they looked in their matching black suits.

Speaking of two men looking silly in their matching dark suits, it was hard not to feel cheated that Mike and Casey didn't do a duet from The Blues Brothers. Not only is that genre part of their overlapping Venn diagram, but they both have the goofy gusto to pull off an Elwood and Joliet impersonation. Alas.

Even though the judges fawned over the duet, the evening still ended on a bad note for Big Mike. As if to justify or soften the blow of leaving Mike as the only singer without a patented Jamie Foxx "Artist" T-shirt to his name, Foxx tried to reiterate his advice, saying Mike would be close to great if he just let go more and went from caterpillar to butterfly and other such metaphors. It might have been meant kindly, but ending the show on that note just served to remind viewers that Jamie Foxx thumbs-upped everyone but Big Mike. And given Mike’s familiarity with the bottom three, it looks like he’ll be the one going home tomorrow.

Other highlights:

• Kara debuted a new pantsuit, perhaps to make it clear she’s ready for Celebrity Apprentice if Idol goes south post-Simon.

• After shoving his face into Lee’s, Jamie Foxx reminded us he did the same thing to Danny Gokey last year and called it the "Michael Mann" move. One point for funny, two points for being a celebrity guest who actually remembered a contestant’s name a year later.

Other Recaps:
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey wasn't crazy about "Ellen making fun of the fact that the song came from Free Willy although I kind of liked that Ryan pointed out that she was in a movie about a sea-dwelling creature as well."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak was not happy to see "Lee in his favorite center-stage stance, nervously tapping his left foot, and darting his eyes shiftily around the Idol set."
Television Without Pity's Jacob noticed that "Without Aaron Kelly it just looks like in-house suspension at a community college. Three stoners and Mike having been late to class one too many times."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX