Straight to Video

Michel Gondry attempts to celebrate DIY filmmaking but comes up short, stale, and flat

The pleasures of Be Kind Rewind do not extend far beyond the promise of its premise: Jack Black, magnetized and manic (yawn), erases every single video tape in the rental store where he hangs out and has to reshoot the movies with pal Mos Def. Theirs becomes a ramshackle filmography of redos made for pennies on the multi-millions: Ghostbusters, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rush Hour 2, The Lion King, Robocop and, most amusingly, the Ali-Foreman doc When We Were Kings. Too bad the makeovers occupy only a few minutes of screen time — the film, written and directed by Michel Gondry, doesn't even seem terribly interested in its own conceit, instead dawdling around the margins till lurching toward the let's-put-on-a-show climax around which the film appears to have been built (rather shakily).

Be Kind Rewind is a muddle — not amiably ambling, not affably shaggy, just a mess that gets messier till, at times, the whole thing looks improvised by amateurs more concerned with being clever than something resembling affectionate. For the first time in the former music-video director's scattershot career, which includes a heartbreaking, mind-bending masterpiece (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which he didn't write) bookended by dazzling disappointments (Human Nature and The Science of Sleep), Gondry seems completely lost, unsure whether his heroes are accidental visionaries wasting their talents or charming idiots who can focus a camera. The greatest mystery, though, is how something peddling the bliss of moviemaking is absent any hint of joy.

Def and Black: The film has the stench of been-there-done-that. Top, Danny Glover
Def and Black: The film has the stench of been-there-done-that. Top, Danny Glover

It takes forever to get going: Mike (Mos Def) works in a ramshackle Passaic, New Jersey, movie-rental store owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) — who, for whatever reason, has refused to shift his catalog to DVD or even acknowledge that VHS is so 1998. Not surprisingly, the store's in fiscal and physical ruin and about to be torn down — assuming, of course, it doesn't merely fall down — and Mr. Fletcher feigns an out-of-town trip to scope out shinier video stores short on product and long on business. In his absence, Mike's left to run the store, till the stock is ruined by the nincompoop Jerry (Black), whose attempts to sabotage the nearby power plant have left him a walking magnet to whom no one would be attracted.

After far too much moseying toward something like a plot, Mike and Jerry find themselves having to reshoot — or, "swede," the meaning of which is never explained, as though it could make a difference — Ghostbusters for a customer (Mia Farrow) who's also Mr. Fletcher's eyes and ears in his absence. Turns out, she can't tell the real thing from the sweded copy — though others in the neighborhood can, and soon enough the duo's ass-covering scheme becomes a full-service operation. The guys begin taking requests from cinephiles and schmucks alike who believe their haphazard makeovers the works of inadvertent auteurs.

On this point alone, Gondry's so late to the party he'll have to sweep up. Be Kind Rewind debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last month, no doubt hoping for the warm embrace of film fetishists who would take seriously its sweet silliness. But only last year Son of Rambow bowed in Park City, Utah, and it's a far superior film about the very same thing: hoping to capture a bit of a movie's escapist magic by remaking it in your own image. And in 2003, three men debuted in Austin their years-in-the-making shot-by-shot redo of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a feat so remarkable producer Scott Rudin snatched up their life story for a movie about the remaking of a movie — mighty, mighty meta.

So, Gondry's film already has the stench of been-there-done-that, and it simply doesn't go far enough — which is to say, funny enough — to overcome it. Somewhere around the middle of the movie it turns into an anti-piracy message, courtesy Sigourney Weaver as a Motion Picture Association of America exec who comes to Passaic to shut down the remake operation (yeah, Sigourney Weaver, star of Ghostbusters, har-dee-har). Only that plot point also quickly disappears, and Mike and Jerry set out to save the store by making their own movie about a jazz legend Mr. Fletcher claims lived above the video store at the turn of the century. So for its third act, Be Kind Rewind becomes an Andy Hardy hootenanny, with the whole neighborhood putting on a show and Mos Def banging on a piano as Fats Waller.

There's no disputing Be Kind Rewind's attempt at sweetness — the movie's as sentimental as a tear-stained get-well card. Only, it's too flat to work up any feelings. Gondry, once more left to his own thin devices, is a master of the intellectual side of filmmaking but has no idea how to wring emotion from his subject matter. Worse, Be Kind Rewind is also a drab, flat-looking film, like something actually made by men for whom a camera's less a tool than a novelty item. Then there's this sad note: It's also just another Jack Black movie, only the low-rent Belushi was far more engaging a thousand years ago slinging old records than remaking old movies. And that's trying to be kind.

 
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