A film review by Craig J. Koban

BE KIND REWIND jj
½ 

2008, PG-13, 101 mins.

Jerry: Jack Black / MikeMos Def / Mr Fletcher: Danny Glover / Miss Falewicz: Mia Farrow / Alma: Melonie Diaz / Lawyer: Sigourney Weaver

Written and directed by Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry’s BE KIND REWIND is a buddy comedy, a fantasy, a screwball farce, a mock bio-pic, and a Capraesque fable about community goodwill.  The problem is that it tries to be everything mentioned, which proves to be it’s ultimate undoing, plus the fact that – when the end credits rolled by – I had no idea what the film was trying to be about.  Make no mistake about it; BE KIND REWIND has laughs aplenty, a nifty and quirky – if not wickedly implausible – premise, and a sweetness and carefree tone and spirit that grows kind of infectious.  Yet, the film kind of experiments too much for its own good, which makes it an uneven experience. 

Gondry himself is the ultimate experimental director.  He directed and deservedly won an Oscar for co-writing 2004’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, which was one of the trippiest, zaniest, and wickedly inventive comedies in many a moon.  That film was notable for the way it played with and rigidly went against audience expectations for the material: Watching the film – with its reckless and chaotic abandonment of linear, straightforward storytelling and its predilection towards offbeat visuals – you kind of appreciated Gondry for being a daring, innovative, and courageous filmmaker for the way he goes against the grain.  

Watching BE KIND REWIND reinforces him as a filmmaker of an oddball and manic vision, but he almost gets a bit too preoccupied here with being audacious and diverse.  Not only that, but the film has a saccharine and phony sentimentality that never feels legitimate.  Imagine IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE meets a surrealistic painting and told with the mindset of a screwball comedy; an odd hybrid, indeed. 

I guess labeling BE KIND REWIND as being completely void of any level of realism is definitely beside the point: this film never really establishes itself in a believable world we know, but rather some sort of bizarro-like alternate dimension.  The premise of the film is solidified in the inanely absurd and is harnessed together with a lot of logical loopholes, not to mention that it has characters that seem like from a whole other plane of existence that live in some sort of weird time warp.  Again, BE KIND REMIND is about parading around Gondry’s eye for the bizarre, and for that it deserves commendation; it just suffers from a lack of cohesiveness. 

This comedy-fantasy concerns what has to be one of the worst run video stores of all-time named BE KIND REWIND, which exists in a dilapidated area in Passaic, New Jersey.  Now, I say it’s one of the worst because (a) the building it’s in is so shoddy and rundown that it is being threatened with demolition, (b) it has a movie selection that borders on paltry and pitiful and (c) its selection is entirely in VHS because, apparently, the DVD format boom of the last decade has complexly blown over the store.   To make matters worse, this flimsy excuse for a rental store is owned by the hapless and hopelessly naïve Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who knows nothing about movies and is convinced that the store was the birthplace of Fats Waller, whom may or may not have ever existed at all.  He is behind on his rent and has broken several health code violations.  The city wants to tear the store down for the sake of progress…and can you blame them?  If outward appearances mean anything, then BE KIND REMIND gives downtrodden dives a bad name. 

Trying to desperately save his store, Fletcher goes on a fact-finding trip to other video stores across the city to see how they manage to do things so well.  He spies with binoculars as customers go into larger video chains, sees how these stores stock their DVD’s, and notates the range and level of selection that they have.  I am not sure what is more pathetic: the fact that Fletcher has to sneak around like an undercover agent to notate the advantages of other high-end video stores or the fact that he has obviously been oblivious to the success of DVDs to a store’s financial stability. 

Anyhoo’, Fletcher leaves his shabby store in charge with his young employee, Mike (Mos Def, nicely underplaying his part), who is shy, introverted, and affable, but not really too bright and competent.  He has a friend named Jerry (Jack Black, playing his part in another one of those annoyingly self aggrandizing and smug comic performances that mugs the camera for all its worth), who lives in a trailer near the store and is a real loon.  Jerry manages to convince Mike to help him on his mission to sabotage a local power station (the camouflage the two paint themselves in provides one of the film’s biggest laughs).  Unfortunately, Jerry is accidentally caught by a rogue blast of electricity from the plant, is suspended in air for several seconds, and is dropped.  When he awakens he finds himself having a huge migraine…and the fact that he is now a big, human magnet.  

Yet, this is not where this film’s peculiarity ends. 

When Mike makes a trip to the video store the next day he inadvertently demagnetizes the entire video selection, thus making all of Mr. Fletcher’s inventory worthless, if it were not already worthless to begin with.  In an absolute panic, Mike has a brain storm and decides to enlist Jerry with helping him make shorter, decidedly lower budgeted, and worse acted and directed versions of the films that they have lost.  The first one they make is GHOSTBUSTERS, and despite the fact that their techniques are crude and rudimentary, they are inventive and crafty.  Of course, this begs the question of whether people would be stupid enough to not notice the difference between their fakes and the real films.  However, with unassuming customers like Miss Falewics (Mia Farrow, kind of creepy and strange here), there is hope that they will pull they stunt off. 

Soon, and to Jerry and Mike’s amazement, their GHOSTBUSTERS knock off is a huge hit and word of this hits the streets.  Soon, legions of locals flock to their store for more of these re-tooled films, which the pair dub as “Sweded” versions.  You see, they charge customers $20 up front, a high rental charge even by Blockbuster Video standards, but necessary, seeing as they tell customers that these films are Swedish-made imports.  Soon, demand for Jerry and Mike’s 'Sweded' versions exceeds their inventory, and also attracts the eyes of the Federal Government, who swoops in and threatens to shut down the store and fine the pair for copyright infringement.  Sigourney Weaver seems bored stiff playing one of the government stooges in a terribly underdeveloped part.

As stated, your ability to like this film is firmly seated in your willingness to overlook the sheer lunacy of its premise and go with it, and I was willing to do so (as soon as Black was electrified like Frankenstein’s monster, you just knew this film’s was going in wacky directions).  There is some real comic value in the pair’s Sweded films (which can be seen at the film’s website), which are the hilarious cornerstones to BE KIND REWIND.  You kind of laugh twice while watching them: once because of how inordinately cheesy and B-grade they are and twice by the sheer ingenuity they display with making them.  Whether or not their versions of BOYZ IN THE HOOD, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, DRIVING MISS DAISY, and ROBOCOP are faithful and good, per se, is redundant: what’s fundamental here is the spirit and limitless drive and determination that goes into them.  They have such a pleasurable, childlike creativity, vitality and limitless enthusiasm that are hard to scorn.  

BE KIND REWIND has sass and energy and is inoffensive with its good-natured sense of whimsy, but the film kind of spirals out of control.  Gondry, a gifted visualist and staunch purveyor of genre-hopping, never really gels everything together well.  Some of the performances are fine (Mos Def is easy to like with his soft-spokenness, and he is a nice foil to the loud mouthed and boisterous pontificating of Black, who once again proves that he is often better playing parts against type) but some of the other character dynamics are weakly assembled, as is the case with a potential three way love triangle between Mike, Jerry, and Alma (Melanie Diaz, cute and bubbly with a marginal role), which is underwritten.  Danny Glover and Mia Farrow are underused as well.  And then there is the film’s sorrowfully tacked on sub-plot about the store and a bunch of local citizens banding together to make a biopic about Fats Waller in hopes of raising money to avoid demolition and to bring the community together.  The false sentimentality of the film’s ending seems to be counterproductive to BE KIND REWIND’s under-the-radar subversive edge and spontaneity. 

Michel Gondry has had an odd career.  The French filmmaker started with commercials and music videos (he made seven Björk videos as well as teaming with Daft Punk and Beck), jumped right into features with his masterfully bizarre ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and then directed the lackluster and dull documentary DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY.  Now comes BE KIND REWIND, which reaffirms Gondry's position as a director that likes to play around with genre conventions.  The problem with BE KIND REWIND is not that it's Gondry’s most foolish film to date, but rather his most foolishly uncultivated.  I liked the film's precocious irreverence, but in the end BE KIND REWIND is merely a misguided effort...not a wasted one. 

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