Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
Michel Gondry’s films have always been hit-or-miss with me. Some of them, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are masterpieces in my eyes. Many of them, such as The Science of Sleep and The Green Hornet, are great big cinematic messes – albeit interesting ones. It’s a real rarity that I find myself completely enjoying a Gondry movie, but that was the case with Be Kind Rewind. I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy this movie all that much, but as the credits rolled, I realized that I had been smitten by it and wanted to watch it again immediately.
Be Kind Rewind is the story of a vintage movie rental store in rundown New York neighbourhood called Passaic that is under threat of being shut down to make way for a block of modern condos. The store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), desperate to try and salvage the business, travels to the inner city to spy on his competitor – a major movie rental chain called West Coast Video, which is obviously a stand-in for Blockbuster video or Rogers – leaving Be Kind Rewind in that hands of Mike (Mos Def). Unfortunately, Mike’s demented friend Jerry (Jack Black) is a walking disaster area who lives in a trailer next to a power grid, and one night, after breaking into the power grid to destroy it because of some paranoid idea about the government using it to spy on him, Jerry gets zapped and becomes magnetized. The next day, Jerry enters Be Kind Rewind and, unbeknownst to him and Mike, destroys all the VHS tapes that the store stocks. With business dwindling already, and with no way to replace all the VHS tapes quickly (Mike rapidly discovers that VHS tapes aren’t being made anymore), Mike and Jerry hatch a truly hairbrained scheme: they will tape themselves remaking the movies with low-budget special effects, with Mike and Jerry playing every part. At first it works well enough to fool one of Be Kind Rewind’s regulars – a batty woman played by Mia Farrow – but word soon spreads that these “sweded” (a term that Jerry coins to explain why the tapes take so long to become available: they’re from Sweden) videos can only be found at Be Kind Rewind, and more and more people show up demanding to see their favourite movies remade by Mike and Jerry. Needing a woman to play the female roles in their movies because they don’t want to kiss eachother, Mike and Jerry enlist the help of the kooky and enthusiastic Alma (Melonie Diaz) to make their movies, and for a while, business is booming. But when an FBI lawyer (Sigourney Weaver) finds out that the store is using copyrighted material for their own personal gain, the threat of losing Be Kind Rewind looms ever greater.
The biggest draw of any Michel Gondry film is the director’s unique visual style. Gondry loves to use do-it-yourself special effects, and his slapdash, arts-and-crafts visuals are a joy to watch. Unfortunately, they don’t always mesh with the story he’s trying to tell, or it feels like too many ideas are crammed into a movie for any one of them to pay off successfully. This is not the case at all with Be Kind Rewind. The story at the centre of the film is perfect for Gondry’s style, as it gives him a single gimmick to play with, but the gimmick is applicable in so many ways. I suppose it helps that Gondry wrote the screenplay himself, but as I said before, I found The Science of Sleep to be a problematic movie, so Gondry’s writing isn’t always the deciding factor when it comes to the success of his films. In Be Kind Rewind, Gondry is afforded the opportunity to remake any movie he wants, and the films he decides to swede are a hilarious mish-mash of classics (such as Ghostbusters) and Blockbuster video movie-of-the-weeks (Rush Hour 2). All the visual tricks that Gondry employs give Be Kind Rewind this nostalgic, analog feeling that seems to both celebrate the fact that nowadays anybody can make a movie on their own if they want to, and also rejoices in the way things used to be not that long ago, when VHS tapes were still one of the standard home video formats.
Mos Def and Jack Black make a good duo to star in all the sweded films that really are the heart and soul of the movie. Black’s wacky, chaotic humour is offset perfectly by Mos Def’s deadpan, mumbly demeanour, and the two of them play off eachother really well. The opening act of the film, before the tapes get destroyed and the story takes off, is just a little too off-the-wall for my tastes, and this might be because it takes some adjustment to grow to like Black’s character (who really is totally insane). But this is a minor quibble, and one that’s offset by the interspersing of footage from a film that gets made in the movie’s final act throughout the first bits of the movie, so you never get so put out by Black’s weirdness that you don’t want to keep watching. Once the sweded movies start appearing, though, Be Kind Rewind becomes a joy to watch all the way to the finish.
Before I end this review, I feel that I should mention the ending of the movie as well. It’s a very bittersweet conclusion that some people may not like. The film ends with Danny Glover conceding to the realtors that he’s going to shut down Be Kind Rewind as soon as they finish screening one last movie that the whole neighbourhood helped make. The movie, which is the fictionalized story of a famous jazz musician who may have once lived in the building, is projected on a sheet pinned up over the storefront window, and after the movie ends, Mike, Jerry, Alma and Mr. Fletcher step outside to find a huge crowd of people have gathered to watch from the other side of the screen. The end credits roll, and at first it seems like a really happy ending…until you realize that they’re still going to have to shut down Be Kind Rewind. It’s an unconventional conclusion to this kind of feel-good comedy, but I really appreciated it. It’s as if Michel Gondry is saying to us “This kind of old-tech, do-it-yourself filmmaking may never make you money, but it’s still worth doing, because people will appreciate your passion for it.”
I highly recommend Be Kind Rewind. It’s a lot smarter (and weirder) than I expected it to be, and it’s so playful and fun that it will put a smile on your face. This is a must-see for anyone who has ever tried to make their own movie, and the best part is: now, more than ever, the technology is available for you to make any movie you want and show it to the world.
4 out of 5