Michel Gondry is an interesting filmmaker, mainly because he entered the business in a different way than most. Gondry has been making music videos, commercials and short films since the late 80s, but didn’t enter the world of feature films until 2001 when he made the film Human Nature. That work was mainly overlooked, but his sophomore effort Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ended up being one of the best movies in recent memory. Gondry is not like the many music video directors who seem obsessed with hyper kinetic pacing and massive CGI effects. Rather, Gondry has built his style around quirky stories and creative dreamlike visuals constructed mostly with physical effects. His third film, The Science of Sleep, was a disappointment. The film was cerebral to a self indulgent extent; the film was nearly impenetrable to all but the most diehard of Gondry fans. Gondry’s newest film, Be Kind Rewind, is probably the first Gondry film I’ve seen that doesn’t seem to take place in someone’s inner psyche, but it might have been more realistic if it did.
The film mostly centers on Mike (Mos Def) a young man working at a small New Jersey VHS rental shop called Be Kind Rewind. This is one of those neighborhood video stores everyone wants to support in theory, but usually doesn’t actually rent from because they have a poor selection. The shop is owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who insists the store is the birthplace of the jazz great Fats Waller. Fletcher is informed by the town that his shop, which isn’t up to code, has been condemned and will need to be ripped down in favor of a condo. Rather than break this news to Mike, he goes on a trip in order to find new ways to run his business. Mike is left in charge of the store, but this quickly goes awry when is peculiar friend Jerry (Jack Black) breaks into a power plant, magnetizes himself, than accidentally erases all the tapes with his presence. Needing to procure a copy of Ghostbusters on short notice for the store’s most loyal customer, Mike and Jerry improvise and film their own DIY version of the film using very cheap effects. Strangely enough the scheme works and they must quickly make similar homemade versions of other popular films.
The movies Mike and Jerry make are really fun quirky pieces, with interesting DIY special effects. The Ghostbusters movie (which is given more emphasis than the other titles) for example, ends with a marshmallow man (made out of a coat hanger and a bag of marshmallows) being set on fire, then exploding onto Jack Black (via a whipped cream spray can). Any one of these copied movies could easily be a Youtube sensation, and Gondry continually surprises us by new and different do it yourself effects work. The film also benefits from smart title selection, as most of the movies featured somehow feel inherently linked to the VHS format.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Mike and Jerry’s scheme would never happen, no one would ever think that would work, and even if it could work it would still take a lot more money and time even to make these “cheap” versions of the films than it would be worth. But, these kind of doubts forget one major element: that this film is “quirky” and that instantly nullifies all logic and common sense. Of course that’s supposed to be the plan, but it doesn’t really work, not in the first half anyway. To the film’s credit, mid way through its established that no one actually thinks these are the real movies and that they’re mainly supporting Mike and Jerry out of a neighborly sense of encouragement, still it’s hard to believe that anyone would be paying twenty dollars to rent these things even out of the goodness of their hearts. In case you can’t tell, suspension of disbelief is necessary to get enjoyment out of this, but that’s not quite as large a problem as it would seem really, after all quirk really can explain a lot and there’s a certain “if you build it they will come” sentiment to the whole thing.
That said, there are a lot of problems with the movie, and first among them is that it doesn’t really have very strong characters. None of the characters are very well developed over the course of the film, nor are they established very well to begin with, which could have been forgiven if they were a bit more lovable, but they aren’t. Mike should be the main character of the film, he’s the one managing the video store, and he’s the one who changes somewhat over the course of the film, but Gondry fails to really focus on him, possibly because he wanted more screen time for Jack Black, whose character is really only strong enough to be a comic relief sidekick. Mos Def is a better actor than most rappers, but he’s really not quite ready to carry a movie and this role needs someone who is. Jack Black, unfortunately just sort of seems to be on autopilot, he has the disadvantage of having a character whose only real characteristics are that he’s loveably dumb and energetic.
There’s a point where Jack Black’s character lets the video store’s success get to his head and demands a trailer, here I began to think the film would turn into a satire of Hollywood, which would have been nice, but that never really materializes. The movie generally would have benefitted from more laugh out loud moments, which would have really boosted the film’s overall value, instead it becomes one of those comedies that settles on making the viewer smile a lot. I also found the film oddly predictable for such a creative piece, the filmmakers make the mistake of over-foreshadowing the finale which should have been more of a surprise than it was. The movie is really at its best when it shows the neighborhood coming together, and Gondry is very successful at building a believable community around the video store.
The DIY movies being made here reminded me a lot of the extravagant plays put on by Max Fisher in the Wes Anderson film Rushmore. Like those plays, the movies here are passionate projects built on a shoestring that can only be believed in a quirky movie like this. The difference is that those plays were just a small element in a larger movie that explores its characters, while the DIY movies are at the center of Be Kind Rewind and despite his best efforts, Gondry can’t quite build a story around them. There is fun to be had here, and there are a lot of really nice moments and an overall good spirit to the movie, but they don’t quite serve a satisfying whole.
**1/2 out of four