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Twice-Told Stories:
Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(New Line)

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Friday, February 22, 2008



Be Kind Rewind

Directed by Michel Gondry
(New Line)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Be Kind Rewind’s very existence is ironic. A not-quite-indie indie featuring a bevy of tested Hollywooders, its main draw is its DIY-style, cardboard-and-chewing-gum recreations of Hollywood blockbusters. Said recreations can be viewed as separate entities on YouTube, a website phenomenon of the latter-day Internet era whose name would be verboten in an establishment like the titular video (and VHS-only) store that serves as BKR’s hub of action. This even though the store’s stock of homemade productions remind one of the mash-ups, parodies, re-edits, and outright remakes that have flourished in the Internet’s wake.

These paradoxes suggest that for the first time in the directorial career of Michel Gondry, the Frenchman’s slightly behind the cultural curve and not far ahead of it. In the age of Juno, where movies aimed at the Obama generation have become synonymous with cheap sentimentalism masked by contrived, paper-thin veneers of hip (hamburger phones, et al), Gondry has for the most part successfully transcended the merely clever, building a career almost exclusively dependent on visual quirk but never indulging in whimsy for style’s, and regressive behavior’s, sake. He simply has too much imagination for demonstrating movies are marvels that can still be aesthetic fun free of bland digital seamlessness and outworn kitsch, and too much investment in relating that fun to his characters’ neurotically stilted lives, for his efforts to be vapid. But Be Kind Rewind, while erring just this side of too adorable for its own good — it’s nothing if not enjoyable for once again showcasing Gondry’s ingenious guerilla filmmaking tactics — is still a bit of a setback. Gondry may be a one-of-a-kind visualist, but he’s far from a seasoned writer, and even with his new film’s grassroots bid for racial harmony and take-back-the-neighborhood organizing there’s something missing here on basic levels of character and story that prove Be Kind Rewind more a wishful nostalgic fantasy than the playful assaults on reality that have defined Gondry’s previous efforts.

By now you know the film’s gimmick — Be Kind Rewind Video employee Mike (Mos Def) and his screw-loose, troublemaking friend Jerry (Jack Black) accidentally erase all the videos in the store. In an only slightly comedic set-up, Jerry becomes magnetized when attempting to assault the neighboring power plant he believes is killing him with its microwaves, which gives Black the excuse to cartoonishly pull or be pulled toward various metal objects — including the tapes that his magnetic charge renders blank. With Mike’s boss and surrogate father, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) gone for the week, they somehow scrounge together enough footage (well, only 20 minutes) to replicate Ghostbusters, their first “Sweded” production, in order to placate the slightly daft Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), a friend of Mr. Fletcher who’s been asked to check up on the store.

Word eventually gets around about the homemade productions and soon everyone in the impoverished Passaic, New Jersey, community is joining in on remakes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Boyz ‘N the Hood and Men in Black, using ragtag costumes, low-low-low-budg solutions to special effects (day-for-night scenes are accomplished via a camcorder’s “negative” effect and Xeroxed faces), and the most inventive of tricks to lovingly approximate Hollywood slickness. As Alma (Melonie Diaz), a local laundress enlisted to expand the crew and play female roles, aptly puts the communal aspect of the filmed events, the participants in the makeshift film factory become “stockholders of their own happiness.” It’s a beautiful little line (almost a throwaway) that perfectly summarizes the feel-good nature of Gondry’s Sweding process, which is far more livelier, earnest, and cooperative than, for example, the condescending, smirking, and dictatorial Max Fischer theatrical adaptations of tough guy Hollywood fare in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. The Sweded catalogue runs the gamut from crap to canon, from Rush Hour 3 to Carrie to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a show of diversity that Gondry contrasts with the DVD-only megarental outfit that Mr. Fletcher studies in order to emulate and save the store from demolition.

But it’s worth mentioning at this point that of Gondry’s four feature films (excluding the Dave Chapelle’s Block Party documentary) Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep were written by him alone; the other couple, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, by Charlie Kaufman. All obviously evince Gondry’s kitchen-sink approach to special effects and art direction, but the difference in their narrative architecture, and the gap in their ability to engage audiences in character and story, is telling. Kaufman not only displays an effortless command of multiple voices, atemporal chronology, and the balancing of fanciful and often outlandish improbabilities with dark-humored philosophy, he’s practically a master at subverting genres from the inside out. Check out Gondry and Kaufman’s overlooked first collaboration Human Nature — a not fully assured, bargain-basement tryout compared to high-end, better-looking Eternal Sunshine, it’s still just as intelligent, just as funny, and takes the sentimental piss out of romantic comedy in just as melancholy and goofy a manner.

Kaufman’s screenplays are brimming over with ideas, and even when they don’t gel, as in the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation, they remain thoroughly challenging as possibilities given unique and often unparalleled individual expression. I’m not sure if the same can be said of Gondry’s “solo” career, at least if measured by his success at spinning a yarn. Some critics have called attention to the subtraction of The Science of Sleep’s autocritique from Be Kind Rewind, but more disappointing is what the two films have in common. There’s a conspicuous flaccidity to his narratives: the romantic tension that should have fueled Science is simply not there, drowned out by cutesiness; similarly, Be Kind Rewind’s driving dramatic conflict is lifted straight out of the hokiest of Hollywood community underdog films and coasts at stretches on purely infectious passion, leaving potentially interesting characters either one-dimensional (Danny Glover and Mia Farrow’s elder-statespeople-of-Hollywood-geared stock characters) and plotlines undeveloped (Mike and Alma’s merely glanced at sexual tension).

But perhaps that’s appropriate — Be Kind Rewind’s Sweded movies are creatively remade, but never, as far as the evidence we see, updated or revised. The working-class citizens of Passaic rally to save the video store from gentrification by making their first original production about Fats Waller, a creative endeavor uniting American cultural history and a liberal interpretation of the facts of the jazz pianist’s actual life with the Sweded process. Prohibited from Sweding by corporate baddies who threaten legal action, the community is forced to not merely mimic the movies but to become part of them. The graduation from creative copying to cultivated creation is where Be Kind Rewind leaves the future of real-life homage and postmodern replication to be improved upon by its own audience (with the implicit charge that the hype over successful homemade tributes like Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is based on the same adoration of spectacle as the latest Hollywood blockbuster, only with “authenticity” to distinguish it from the unmitigated commercialism). But that opening is compromised by Gondry’s willingness to resort to impersonal clichés to sell it. “To movies with heart and soul,” Miss Falewicz toasts, but it’s all too apparent that the heart and soul of Be Kind Rewind lies in its invention, not in its innovation.

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