The more pristine and antiseptic the world becomes, it seems, the more nostalgic we feel for the dirt. No sooner did the compact disc permanently supplant vinyl records than virtually every musician with an iota of hipster cred began sprinkling their albums with ersatz crackle and pop, striving to duplicate the messy, ostensibly warmer sound of a phonograph needle. Movies are taking a bit longer to go fully digital, but we’ve finally reached the point where cruddy old VHS tapes can make consumers (and filmmakers) of a certain age feel a Proustian pang. Later this year, we’ll see the release of 2007 Sundance favorite Son of Rambow, in which a group of British lads in the mid-’80s re-create First Blood on a home-video camera; there’s also a film in development about the real-life Mississippi teenagers who spent seven years making a shot-for-shot video version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. For now, though, we have Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry’s loving, adorably clumsy paean to community and (very) low fidelity. All the CGI in the world’s mainframes, Gondry insists, is no match for imagination and duct tape.
An unapologetic romantic and dreamer, Gondry has pointedly set this movie in the here and now, despite a premise that would have made far more sense 15 or 20 years ago. So you’ll just have to roll with the absurd notion that somewhere in Passaic, New Jersey, there’s a corner video store—Be Kind Rewind—that has never made the transition from VHS to DVD, perhaps for fear of having to change the store’s name and thus spend money on a new sign. Disbelief must be further suspended when Jerry (Jack Black), bosom pal of Be Kind employee Mike (Mos Def), absorbs a massive electrical charge one night while attempting to scale a fence and somehow, merely upon entering the store the following day, manages to demagnetize the entire inventory. Fearful of losing a slightly batty but valued customer (Mia Farrow) who’s keen to catch up with Ghostbusters, Jerry and Mike, who can’t locate a VHS copy, proceed to grab a cheap video camera, scrape up some chintzy costumes and produce a 15-minute version starring themselves. Before you can say “yeah right okay sure” (yet again), their “Sweded” renditions of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Rush Hour 2 have the neighborhood lined up around the block, much to the consternation of the lawyers who investigate charges of copyright infringement.
Obviously, we’re talking about a conceit that walks an exceedingly thin line between the delightfully ludicrous and the just plain stupid. Which means that it really required the demented genius of frequent Gondry collaborator Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who has an amazing knack for making the surreal seem utterly mundane. Alas, Gondry wrote this screenplay himself, and the result is as disjointedly whimsical as his last solo effort, The Science of Sleep.
Gondry’s creative energy tends to flow best in short, staccato bursts, as in his numerous stunning music videos; over the course of an entire feature film, without somebody like Kaufman to ground him, he tends to drift off into reveries so private that they rapidly become as tiresome as any random person’s recounted dream. Be Kind Rewind just sorta ambles along, goofy as hell, hoping you’ll be charmed by its absence of flash; only the Sweded excerpts (which can be viewed in full on the film’s website) are genuinely funny.
Still, despite its proudly half-assed vibe and unengaging central performances—Black does his usual manic shtick; Mos Def, an underrated actor, often seems only half-awake here—the film does paint a touchingly utopian portrait of suburban neighborhood life, concocting an idealized world in which folks would rather volunteer for cameo roles in an amateur production than just sit in their living rooms consuming whatever professionals have devised for their entertainment. In that respect, it shares a sensibility with Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the joyous concert film that Gondry directed a few years back. Block Party was ultimately more about Brooklyn than about hip-hop or Chappelle, and Be Kind Rewind likewise radiates a cozy intimacy that’s hard to resist.
It’s about as shoddy as major-studio movies get, but that shoddiness is deliberate, and arguably the whole point. Anything less ramshackle would have been a betrayal of its entire ethos. In other words, it really had to kinda suck. That there is about as kind as I’m willing to be.
Be Kind Rewind
Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow
Directed by Michel Gondry