Melonie Diaz and Jack Black on the set of King Kong in Be Kind Rewind
Imagine a world where it is accepted fact that legendary Jazz pianist Fats Waller was born in Passaic, New Jersey instead of Greenwich Village and that a video store operating in the tenement where Waller supposedly lived could survive well into the 21st century renting only VHS tapes. Such is the slightly off kilter imagined reality of Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry’s latest celluloid fairytale. The title is also the name of the video store in question owned by Danny Glover, staffed by his somewhat simple adopted son Mos Def and frequented by Jack Back, the loon who lives in a trailer in the wrecking yard across the street. It’s a fantasy universe just a bit off center from our own, but the real world is all around it and it is encroaching.
Glover increasingly suffers the competition from big, impersonal, Blockbuster-like DVD rental chains and a condo developer has set his sights on the parcel of land containing Glover’s store. This is all bad enough, but fortunes seem to take a turn for the disastrous when Jack Black inadvertently erases every one of the VHS tapes that are the store’s stock in trade. Then, instead of replacing the tapes, he and Mos Def set about recreating them with their own video camera. It’s a strange decision, but what’s even stranger is that the fake tapes are a hit. No one is fooled, but customers begin lining up around the block to rent homemade copies of their favorite films and eventually to even star in them.
This is all about as silly as it sounds, yet if you can get into the spirit of it, it kind of works. Be Kind Rewind is a gentle ode to the power of imagination, to the idea of doing it yourself rather than having your entertainment spoon fed to you. It’s about simple creativity uniting a community and empowering it to tell its own story whether the story is true or not.
The best parts of the film feature Black and Def creating their remakes. It’s fun to see the moments they choose to film and the creative ways they go about capturing the scenes with no budget. The recreations of Ghostbusters, Robocop, The Lion King and Rush Hour 2 are charming and also frequently pretty funny. The rest of the film unfortunately isn’t quite as successful. Be Kind Rewind itself almost feels thrown together by amateurs. Of course this is by design, but it tends to counteract the power of the emotional payoff the film is shooting for in the end. You spend most of the film wondering what to take seriously and what is just fooling around. The cast plays it completely straight, never winking at the camera or otherwise letting you know they’re not being real. It creates an interesting tension, but an uncomfortable one that’s more than a little off-putting. Is it a joke and are we meant to be in on it or is it serious?
The film, as loose as it is, benefits enormously from a likeable cast. Everyone seems relaxed without coming across as lazy. There is no snarkiness or above-it-all inside joking. The characters are largely played like real people, though Jack Black is a pretty typical variation on his comedic persona. It works because it’s Jack Black and it fits what we think we know about him. Danny Glover is great as the winding down old man and Def does a fine job as the guy trying to hold everything together. Melonie Diaz is also good as the seemingly ordinary girl who you’d think ought to see through the fantasy, but who seems as happy to play along as everyone else.
Your willingness to play along will likely determine your ability to enjoy the movie. For me, as it tottered along in its strange way, I kept expecting it to fall apart or lose my interest, but somehow it always managed to hold on just short of disaster. On the other hand, while it never completely falls on its face, Be Kind Rewind undeniably feels somewhat half cooked and this keeps me from recommending it more wholeheartedly. In the end, I wonder if it might not have worked better as a short film rather than a feature.
Be Kind Rewind. USA 2008. Written and directed by Michel Gondry. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Music score composed by Jean-Michel Bernard. Starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Melonie Diaz and Mia Farrow. 1 hour 41 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for some sexual references. 3 stars (out of 5)
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