Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) directs Be Kind Rewind, the 2008 comedy. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2008 and was later shown at the Berlin International Film Festival. Gondry, who is noted for his inventive visual style and his manipulation of design, is a nice fit to direct this quirky film, although some audiences may be confused by the notion that it is not a straightforward comedy by any means. Most of the hype directed towards Be Kind Rewind has to do with the characters remaking various hit films, but this is only part of the puzzle in what is actually a complex and often strange film.
Mos Def stars as Mike, who works in a declining VHS rental store in Passaic, New Jersey. The store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), frequently tells the story that legendary jazz musician Fats Waller was born in the store. Mike’s best friend, Jerry (Jack Black), hangs out with Mike frequently at the store. Jerry is known for his crackpot theories about nuclear power and microwaves. Fletcher’s shop faces extinction, as DVDs are obviously the primary way in which people rent movies. The store is expected to be pulled, probably for a Starbucks or a Blockbuster outlet.
Fletcher decides to take matters into his own hands and heads off on a trip to investigate the competition, hoping to gain some tips on how to run his business more effectively. He puts Mike in charge of the store while he’s gone, with explicit instructions to not let Jerry anywhere near anything. Jerry asks Mike for his help to sabotage the power plant he despises and, during the adventure, Jerry is somehow electrified and magnetized. When Jerry heads back to see Mike at the shop the following day, his magnetism erases all of the VHS tapes. To help cover this up, Mike and Jerry eventually decide to film their own versions of the movies. The homemade movies become a hit and business begins to boom.
The performances in the film are rather charming and funny, especially when Mos Def begins to impersonate various movie stars and his nervous energy turns him into a sort of Woody Allen archetype. Black is just okay in this, however, but his character is odd enough to be engaging on some level. When the re-shooting of the films takes place, Black heads into overdrive as usual and his frenetic energy is very hit or miss.
The supporting actors are good, especially Mia Farrow as a customer who doesn’t seem to know the difference between the Jerry and Mike version of Ghostbusters and the real deal. Melonie Diaz is a nice addition to the film, as she plays the sweet girl who helps Jerry and Mike in their hour of need.
The re-shooting of the films, a process which Jerry and Mike call “sweding” for reasons I’ll let the viewer discover, is probably among the most purely comedic sections of the film, as the rest of it is dedicated to achieving a strange mood in the strange town of Passaic. With films like Ghostbusters, RoboCop, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Lion King up for reshooting by Jerry and Mike, the end results are often hilarious. The process of filming is funny, too, especially as the duo take on their first project, Ghostbusters. Watching Mos Def channel Chris Tucker for a ridiculous remake of Rush Hour 2 (of all things!) was probably a personal highlight for me.
Overall, Be Kind Rewind is creative enough to recommend. Gondry’s playful gaze, with which he examined personal relationships in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is turned towards the art of film in this one. Its purpose is to examine the relationships that films make with their audiences, why audiences go to the movies, and what audiences take with them from the movies. It does this by playing on the interplay between audience and filmmaker, showing the connection that one can actually have with a film like Ghostbusters and quite literally appealing to the idea of putting “us” in the movie. On the Be Kind Rewind website, visitors can “swede” themselves onto the box art of some “classic” VHS tapes, making the vision even broader.
The focus here is on pop cinema and movies that most everyone has seen. There’s no attempt to “swede” Citizen Kane or any Kurosawa epic, as that would be overreaching in accordance with Gondry’s point. The idea is to play with the connection of the average filmgoer. It’s a tender connection and Gondry gives it the fractured fairy tale treatment in this film, which may not appeal to everyone. Be Kind Rewind can be read a number of ways, but it is certainly not a straightforward comedy and is best suited for those with more of a taste for indie-style quirkiness. I recommend it.