I don’t have a clever preamble with which to lead into my thoughts on Be Kind, Rewind. That doesn’t matter, as it has cleverness to spare, if still not enough to tie all its disparate threads into a convincing whole. This movie is confused and conceptually addled. Predicated on a cute concept, it rests on the shoulders of two characters who are as suited to support this story as a column of wet cardboard is an interstate on-ramp.
And still I almost like it — almost — for reasons that stand apart from the fact that, objectively, Gondry has made a bad, weird little movie. It’ll take me a minute to get to them, though.
Be Kind, Rewind isn’t quite what you expect, based on the trailer. The ads posit the adventures of two affable video shop clerks who destroy their wares, recreate them, find voluminous public approval, then get in trouble with the feds. That’s charming, if perhaps not much of a movie. Then again, neither is what’s actually on screen.
Mike (Mos Def) is the adopted son of Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), one of the last holdouts in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Fletcher runs (and lives above) Be Kind, Rewind, a video store and junk shop, but he’s facing eviction. A revitalization (read: condo) project plans to tear down the corner he’s occupied for years unless Fletcher can raise enough cash to bring it up to code.
With little time remaining to raise money, Fletcher buggers off. Ostensibly he’s going to celebrate the birth of Fats Waller, the neighborhood’s famous local hero, but he’s really out researching DVD rental shops. He leaves Mike in charge and forbids his dimwitted friend Jerry (Jack Black) from entering the store. But after a quixotic attempt to disable a local power station leaves him severely magnetized, Jerry shows up, the tapes get erased, and now we’re finally in the territory promised by the trailer.
That seems like a lot of plot to give away, but now you might have some idea of just what a confused jumble this movie really is; it’s aptly named, at least, as it feels like the back corner of Fletcher’s junk shop. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter. There’s no shred of tension that actually depends on the plot, and in fact there’s no real dramatic tension here at all.
As a fable — and the movie is definitely that — such things might be excused, but Gondry goes so far off in different directions, some whimsical, others rather realistic, that they all cancel each other out. If the trailer rundown sounds better than those two paragraphs of plot, I don’t think you’re far out of bounds. This whole project is better suited to a short form that can introduce the concept, briefly exploit it, and get out.
As is, ‘sweding’, and the appeal of user-created content, is only the partial focus. Gondry keeps getting distracted and waylaid. He tries to layer in critiques of piracy enforcement, gentrification and the homogenization of the modern movie landscape via monolithic video rental companies. Never mind that the latter is at least two years out of date; Gondry apparently couldn’t figure out how to work in Netflix or downloads and discounts the notion that the cinema landscape is now arguably more varied than it’s been in years.
But this is Gondry’s own universe, and you’ll find those moments where it seems real enough. The reverence Fletcher and Mike have for Fats Waller, the way a multicultural collection of residents populate the neighborhood, even Jerry as the local loon all help make the movie’s own reality knit together.
‘Sweding’, then. This is the movie’s concept for the highly condensed homemade recreations Mike and Jerry create with Alma (Melonie Diaz), a cute girl who’s a lot sharper than her initial Jersey facade promises. Sweded films are funny, yes, and the people that rent them know exactly what they’re watching; thankfully there’s no effort to convince us that Hollywood crap has made people so stupid that they don’t know the difference between sweding and moviemaking.
No, the movie’s characters want the sweded versions of movies because they’re kooky takes done by people they know, and eventually the whole neighborhood is in on the project. With that Gondry’s almost on to something, and maybe not so behind the curve as his Netflix avoidance suggests. But would the same audience that watches ridiculous clips on YouTube stand in line and provide a stack of documentation (as the movie’s scenario requires) to watch silly little homemade movies? Does user-created content lose out to big ticket stuff, if the homemade clips suck?
I guess that depends on whether you actually find them silly. In their interpretive filmmaking dance, it’s certain that Mike, Jerry and Alma’s movies would have sparks of their own creativity. We see this when they eventually make their own movie — the biography of Fats Waller that is interspersed throughout the opening and ending.
Suddenly, sweding looks a lot like the movies of Guy Maddin, so instantly my defenses softened. The heart of the movie is in these terrifically fun, imaginative clips, and if Gondy had managed to bring this sense of playful creativity into the entire film, I would love this movie. The film about Fats is inventive and it defies all laws of typical moviemaking…so why does it take so long to make it the focus?
Amid the mess, Mos Def mugs and shrugs through his scenes while Jack Black is, perhaps unavoidably, Jack Black. He falls back on the same broad physicality and facial goggling that he’s worked so often before. Both of them, more often than not, look like they don’t understand what’s going on. Though I’m not much disappointed in Black, since this is about what I’ve come to expect, I was in Mos Def. I’m not positive that he’s a good actor, but he’s far more entertaining, at least, than this turn would suggest. Both of them are little more than goofy manchildren, and hopefully not just stand-ins for Gondry himself.
Scenes that are saved are thanks to Melonie Diaz, who brings the light touches that elude the two stars. Though Danny Glover oozes professionalism amd Mia Farrow comes off like the weirdo I always prayed she actually is, Diaz is the closest thing to a natural the film can boast.
Finally, here’s the big conclusion. We wait and wait for this awkward mixture to gel and it’s finally Gondry that gives up. The tangential threads all fall away, and so do many of the characters, or at least their overt quirks. We’re left with just a glowing, idealistic vision of the unifying power of movies.
The finale is charming enough that I still can’t decide whether to be angry about all the wasted time or happy that he finally got something right. When the film’s last movie is shown to the neighborhood, there’s a final, almost transcendental image that cuts right to the heart of everything Gondry is trying to say about movies and their ability to elevate ideas, create reality and bridge social chasms. Perhaps incidentally, it also cuts right to the center of everything I believe about the medium. So I almost forgive him for taking such a bumpy road to get there.
There’s a post-script, though: the final issue Gondry skirts. Be Kind, Rewind‘s final, triumphant creation reinforces history that is knowingly, intentionally false. What does that say about the position of Hollywood flicks with respect to people and their stories? That we embrace Hollywood’s fake garbage, so why not our own? It’s the agency that matters here — the will and the way to have your own voice — or, really, the medium. Not the message. If I could walk away from Gondry’s movie thinking he really believed that, I’d feel more charitable, and I’d be more willing to let the swedes have their way.