Be Kind Rewind
8/10 (wasted potential; choppy narrative; confusing style)
Director Michel Gondry is a visual genius. This is evident to anyone who has seen “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep,” “Human Nature,” or any of his dozens of music videos. What’s not so self-evident from his feature length films is his ability to flesh out the rest of the productions to match his brilliant imagery. So far only “Eternal” has felt like a complete film, and a glorious one at that.
“Be Kind Rewind” suffers from this lack of substance. It is a visually captivating movie that leaves you as impressed with Gondry’s insane vision/premise as you are unsatisfied by the lack of anything else.
The plot revolves around a down-and-out video store owner (Danny Glover) who must figure out a way to come up with $60,000 for renovations to his crumbling building or risk being displaced. While researching new business models, he leaves the store under control of his adopted son Mike (Mos Def), who can’t keep his crazy friend Jerry (Jack Black) from screwing things up. Jerry crazily manages to erase all of the video tapes in the store, so then Mike comes up with the idea of making the films themselves as the clients come to rent them. What starts out with a hilarious remake of “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour 2” ends up with the whole neighborhood clamoring for more of these copies, which Jerry claims look different because they’ve been imported from Sweden. The “sweded” copies end up more popular than the originals, and hijinks ensue.
It’s easy to see the comedy potential in this premise, and Gondry uses it well to showcase his oddball directing style. You have a pretty good idea what you’re in for in an early scene when you see Mos Def, Danny Glover and Jack Black seated around a table with various metal bowls and collanders on their heads (to screen out the microwaves). Mos Def is serviceable as the naive Mike, and Jack Black plays himself yet again, but luckily in this case it’s exactly what the role calls for (it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Gondry wrote the part with Black in mind).
The problem with the film is that Gondry leaves a lot of untapped potential lying around, and the entire movie feels rushed. You barely have time to appreciate all of the sight gags in a scene, let alone listen to the witty dialogue and catch the comic film references when the montage of all of the sweded film productions scroll by.
I literally cried from laughing so hard during the “Driving Miss Daisy” scene (picture Jack Black in Jessica Tandy’s role screaming at Mos Def in a vaguely British accent to teach him how to read). That hasn’t happened to me since Bill Murray’s brilliant cameo in “Zombieland.” But I can’t help feeling that there were dozens of other such moments of hilarity just waiting to be revealed. It makes me wonder if there might be a director’s cut that presents a more satisfying, coherent narrative.
Apart from the wasted potential, for which I’m not certain it’s totally appropriate to blame Gondry, there were some other problems which were purely directorial. The tone of the film is strange to say the least. In Gondry’s world, video renters magically love these twenty minute sweded copies and are not incensed at being ripped off. Thugs demand a sweded version of “Lion King” and quickly buy into the community-building project centered around saving the old video store. Everyone feels good about themselves and the cheese flows freely.
Then, the outside world intrudes and they want to close down the store anyway. The movie itself ends on a pessimistic note. I’ll freely admit that I don’t understand the mix of realism and fantasy that Gondry presents here. If he was already going the unbelievable cheese route (which I was okay with), why couldn’t he continue it to have a happy ending? It could very well have been a sort of social commentary on the state of the modern world and the film industry in particular. Indeed, Gondry’s subversive tendencies have never been more apparent than here. But I still don’t like its inconsistency.
All in all, despite the shortcomings “Be Kind” is worth viewing for Gondry’s magicianry with props and sight gags, and his use of stop-motion and reverse camera techniques in lieu of high-end special effects. This gives the film a vintage feel, and a sort of nostalgia for classic film-making. I assume it’s Gondry thumbing his nose at modern film conventions. And indeed, he has shown himself throughout his career to be capable of creating more memorable special effects with only a fraction of the budget of big-studio films.
So I can wholeheartedly recommend that you see this film even though it’s not perfect. The premise and the visuals are totally original, and they will leave you comforted that such creativity can still come out of Hollywood. It also may help convince you to keep your eye on Michel Gondry. Kooky? Yes, and talented as hell.
14 April 2010