Be Kind Rewind (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Despite some solid laughs and a feel-good ending, Michael Gondry's Be Kind Rewind exists far from the mainstream and its appeal will be limited to those who embrace the kind of awkward quirkiness that defines the production. This comedy/fantasy/drama constantly reinvents itself as it progresses, skipping gleefully across genres, discarding subplots and plot threads, and occasionally turning nonsensical. It's a hodgepodge of tones and styles but, given a chance, it may grow on a viewer. It's not always easy going, however. For every genuine, hard-earned laugh there are at least two missed chances for something more outrageous, and what starts out as a zany Jack Black physical comedy ends up as a heartfelt homage to independent filmmaking. Predictable this isn't, but that can be seen as both an asset and a detriment.

Arguably the biggest problem with Be Kind Rewind is that Gondry never stops experimenting, even when the experimentation works against the movie's best interests. For much of its running length, this seems more like a series of loosely connected skits than a cohesive whole. There's also a sense that Gondry is being weird for the sake of weirdness. Having formed a reputation directing movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (after moving to film from music videos), Gondry has been pigeonholed as a risk-taking director. Be Kind Rewind has the feel of something developed to live up to that reputation. A lot of what's bizarre in this movie is not organic to its plot or structure; it has a tacked-on feel, as if it was gratuitously added to satisfy expectations about Gondry's work.

The story centers around the Be Kind Rewind video store, which exists on a corner in a rundown neighborhood in Passaic, New Jersey. This part of the town is about to be torn down to make way for a shiny new condominium complex. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), the owner of the store, is fighting gentrification with all his might, but wars fought by little guys against political machines rarely have happy endings. Determined to upgrade his store so it can compete, he goes on a trip to observe a West Coast Video store to learn how the chain operates. While he's gone, he leaves his live-in employee, Mike (Mos Def), in charge. Mike's best friend, Jerry (Jack Black), visits the store to make a nuisance of himself and annoy the customers. Soon after, Jerry embarks upon a foolhardy attempt to sabotage the local power station. This results in his somehow becoming "magnetized." While in that state, he visits Be Kind Rewind and his newfound powers result in the accidental erasure of all the video tapes in the store. Panicked, Jerry and Mike grab a camcorder and set out to "re-create" popular films so the store will have something available to rent. Their home-made versions of hits like Ghostbusters and Robocop become hugely popular and lines develop outside of the soon-to-be-demolished Be Kind Rewind with people clamoring to see the latest and greatest that the store has to offer.

If it sounds like Gondry is channeling Capra as filtered through his own off-kilter sensibilities, that's a good way to describe it. The ending is like a peculiar mix of Cinema Paradiso and It's a Wonderful Life. Yet the missed opportunities are maddening. The home-made re-creations are amusing but they ultimately represent a wellspring of untapped humor.

This is a movie where it's necessary for the viewer to buy into an over-the-top premise. Yes, it's ludicrous that all the video tapes in a store could be erased because a magnetized man walks through the door. And it's equally silly that two guys could make their own version of Ghostbusters in a few hours, but Be Kind Rewind demands that audience members accept these things. Still, even for those willing to go with the flow, there are problems. The magnetization of Jerry, which initially seems to be a major plot point, is disposed of when it no longer suits the story. And a budding romance between Mike and Jerry's leading lady, Alma (Melonie Diaz), is ignored shortly after being introduced. The haphazard way in which the final product has been assembled makes one wonder whether a lot was left on the cutting room floor or whether pages of the script were removed at random from what the actors were given.

The cast is nothing if not eclectic. Give Gondry credit for being one of the few directors who understands Jack Black's strengths and weaknesses and was therefore able to craft a role the actor can handle. It helps that Black is paired with the laconic (that's a nice term for "wooden") Mos Def, whose low key presence contrasts with Black's wattage. Two veterans - Mia Farrow and Danny Glover - offer some balance and Melonie Diaz, a familiar face from TV shows and low-budget indie productions, provides some youth and a pretty face. In short, while there are familiar names, there's not much star power.

It takes a while for Gondry to get where he's going, but Be Kind Rewind eventually puts aside its romantic misfire, its half-hearted arguments against gentrification, and its comic book silliness about Magnet Man, and settles into an ode to low-budget filmmaking. In the end, Mike and Jerry set out to make their own movie and, in doing so, involve many members of the local community. It's guerilla filmmaking at its finest, and some of the best laughs come during these segments. But, to be honest, the whole thing is kind of a mess, although not an uninteresting one. Be Kind Rewind hits and misses with equal abandon. It frustrates even as it entertains, and that's not always the most satisfying or enjoyable of mixtures.

Be Kind Rewind (United States, 2008)

Director: Michael Gondry
Cast: Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz
Screenplay: Michael Gondry
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras
Music: Jean-Michel Bernard
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1