Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is a more mainstream effort than the personal and heartfelt The Science of Sleep, but still imbued with his signature handmade style and many of his particular (some might say peculiar) obsessions.
The premise is brilliant in its simplicity: a pair of misfit doofuses accidentally erase every tape in their retro video rental store, and decide to remake an eclectic selection of them from scratch. The considerable humor comes not just in how Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) recreate shots, costumes, casting, and special effects, but also in how they must reconstruct entire plots and scenes from memory alone. If you had to condense a movie you hadn’t seen since childhood (say, for example, Ghostbusters) down to 20 minutes, equipped only with a camcorder and a budget of approximately $0, how would you do it? Jerry randomly coins the word “sweded” to describe their work, a puzzling term that isn’t even a pun, but spontaneous absurdity is a virtue in Gondry’s world.
Desperation inspires them to find a means of artistic expression, something many people spend lifetimes daydreaming about but never seize for themselves. Much as how Tim Burton characterized Ed Wood in his eponymous biopic, Mike and Jerry have true amateurs’ supreme confidence in their total filmmaking abilities. Their own ingenuity and the power of moviemaking inspires them with the realization that they can do anything and the trust that people will like what they do. Also like Wood, each obstacle they encounter merely increases their creativity.
Even before the inciting incident of mass erasure, Jerry was already something of an outsider artist. He operated an auto shop with very creative notions of “repairing” cars into souped-up rocket-powered BatMobiles. His character is initially very unlikable, and evidently something of a misogynist. We see him taunt and nearly physically threaten a woman in the video store. Later, he reveals a longing for cutie Alma (Melonie Diaz) working in the local laundry, but when moviemaking provides him with the opportunity to interact with her, he treats her as would a little boy with a “No Girls Allowed” treehouse. But that’s not to imply there’s something cute about his attitude towards women; there appears to be a barely suppressed contempt and threat of violence.
An obvious paradox is that Be Kind Rewind is a film from a major motion picture studio that celebrates the indie spirit (not to mention fair use of copyrighted materials) and vilifies the venal movie biz executives that inevitably materialize with cease-and-decist orders. Speaking of venal movie execs, the movie’s home at New Line Cinema no doubt introduced several hardly canonical films like the New Line property Rush Hour 2 into Gondry’s script. The overabundance of New Line posters and VHS tapes in the set design bric-a-brac is something of a joke. While it’s funny that a run-down video store might still have ratty old Blast From the Past posters hanging around, would a competing mainstream neon-lit DVD store (Blockbuster in all but name) really shill for the long-forgotten Woo?
Be Kind Rewind is at its most brilliant when recreating classic (and some not-so-classic) moments from cinema history, so much so that everything else in the film feels like a distraction from the true delights. But the powerfully moving climax is the premiere screening of Mike and Jerry’s masterpiece, made in collaboration with their entire community. Their maturity as auteurs is marked by their first truly original work; their film within a film is a fictionalized musical biopic of Fats Waller. If only all actual musical biopics could be so wonderful!
Full disclosure: I first saw an advance screening of Be Kind Rewind on February 22, but as I was then employed by the movie company distributing the film, I decided not to post my thoughts. Regardless, I had nothing to do with making or marketing the film, and any opinions expressed above are mine alone.
Must Read: Director-File.com’s Be Kind Rewind archive