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This review was originally published March 3rd, 2008.
Michel Gondry’s been alternating back and forth for a while now between heady arthouse fare and more commercial projects. He initially broke into the mainstream with the well-respected thinker Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; then he turned around a directed a lightweight documentary entitled Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (which was about exactly what you’re probably thinking it was about). He followed this one with the independent French-produced film The Science of Sleep, which made the usual film festival rounds before getting picked up for a limited release by Warner Independent Pictures. For his next project, he’s chosen to direct a screwball comedy starring two musicians-turned-actors. I guess you can’t accuse him of being afraid to try new things.
I myself have long had a love/hate relationship with Gondry. I thought Eternal Sunshine was brilliant, but that The Science of Sleep was something of a rehash (the storyline was somewhat different, but it employed much of the same visual style for many of the same purposes). I was glad to see his next project was a fairly different one—and that he was putting less of an emphasis on surreal visual metaphor. My expectations were high, and I admit I was a bit let down—but while Be Kind Rewind is not the masterpiece that Eternal Sunshine is, it is a good film.
Be Kind Rewind stars Danny Glover as the owner of a video rental of the same name in a poor, inner-city New Jersey neighborhood. He leaves town for a few days, putting his adopted son Mike (Mos Def) in charge of the store, and warning him to keep the local junkyard-dwelling nut Jerry (Jack Black) out. Not surprisingly, Mike fails to do this, and Jerry ends up erasing every videotape in the store after he becomes magnetized (long story, don’t ask). Faced with customers demanding movies and no source of VHS tapes (the whole world, after all, has gone to DVD), Mike and Jerry do the only thing that makes sense (to them, anyway): they begin to re-film the movies with themselves in the starring roles. What starts as a quick-and-dirty fix, however, soon becomes a booming cottage industry as the homebrew films become surprisingly popular, and Mike and Jerry struggle to meet demand, even as they charge hugely inflated rental prices.
This is all arguably somewhat high-concept, but Gondry is still dealing in themes that run deep. Be Kind Rewind is a film that questions the very nature of entertainment, and wastes no time in criticizing an entire country—an entire world, really—that has handed its culture-creating responsibilities over to a handful of wealthy elites. As Mike and Jerry recreate Hollywood films, they become local celebrities; but as pressure mounts to make more and more movies, they begin to involve their community, and create works of art that bring people together and give them something to believe in. As you might expect, Hollywood is not happy (Sigourney Weaver has a fantastic cameo as an irate L.A. lawyer).
The irony here, of course, is that Be Kind Rewind is major motion picture distributed by a large Hollywood studio (specifically New Line Cinema, which is a subsidiary of Time Warner), even if it does have some indie cred (it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival). It’s hard to say whether Gondry is being populist here, or merely condescending—a problem somewhat compounded by his trademark lack of concern for realism. Perhaps this is why the film never really connects on an emotional level. It’s an easy film to like, but a hard film to love.
It’s impossible to watch Be Kind without thinking about Al Yankovic’s cult film UHF, to which it owes more than a superficial debt. Whereas UHF was a study in crowd-pleasing sketch comedy, however, Be Kind aims to be a more storyline-driven film, and it wears its underlying philosophy on its sleeve. It comes close to hitting its target, but it ultimately misses—mainly due to the weakness of its script (which positions the Jack Black character—a hard-to-like paranoid schizophrenic—as one of its heroes). This is Gondry’s second attempt at writing, and while the script here is better than the one he wrote for The Science of Sleep, it’s still ultimately a weak effort (even if his excellent direction makes up for much of it). There are great moments—the final scene pays off in a big way—but there are too many frustrations for an unqualified recommendation.