February 26, 2008

REVIEW: Be Kind Rewind (C)

Background: French writer/director Michel Gondry followed up his cult favorite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with 2006's The Science of Sleep. Both films heavily feature surrealism, dreams, and memories - they don't make sense, and you're not sure if they're supposed to. Be Kind Rewind, Gondry's most mainstream fare to date, stars Jack Black (Margot at the Wedding, The Holiday), Brooklyn hip-hop artist Mos Def (16 Blocks), and Danny Glover (Honeydripper), with appearances by Mia Farrow and Melonie Diaz (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Raising Victor Vargas). Filmed on location in Passaic, NJ, Be Kind Rewind was apparently inspired by Dave Chappelle, whose 2005 documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party was also (oddly) directed by Gondry - a French surrealist who enjoys American hip-hop and urban cultural humor.

Synopsis: Mr. Fletcher (Glover) owns a dilapidated video (only VHS) store called Be Kind Rewind in Passaic, NJ. As you'd guess in the world of movies, the location is being threatened by a planned condo development. Fletcher has told his "adopted" son, Mike (Mos Def), that the store and their upper floor apartment is also the historic birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. Local vomiting mechanic and outrageous weirdo Jerry (Black) is Mike's best friend and, to Mr. Fletcher's disgust, the store's most loyal visitor. When Mr. Fletcher leaves on an unnecessary trip, Mike is left in charge of the store, and an unbelievable accident causes all of the tapes to be erased. With no way to procure extra copies of all the movies in the catalog, Mike and Jerry decide to recreate each movie (they call it "Sweding") with their own video camera and the help of local wallflower Alma (Diaz). Their versions of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, and Robocop prove so popular that they can't meet the neighborhood's demand. Mr. Fletcher returns in time to help them transfer the videos to DVD and streamline the Sweding process, which now allows the customers themselves to play a part in their film of choice. As the group is about to save the store by raising enough money to stop the condo development, the feds (Sigourney Weaver) shut down their project due to copyright violation guidelines. By now, the community has banded together around the store, and they predictably decide that creating a biopic about Fats Waller will warm the hearts and minds of the greedy developers once and for all.

I Loved:
+ The realism achieved by filming on location in Passaic, NJ.
+ The creative use of "special effects" in the film recreations.

I Liked:
+ The camouflage fence scene - clever and amusing for a little bit.
+ The montage filming scene, starting with the When We Were Kings bit. The take was unnecessarily showy, but still entertaining.

I Disliked:
- Jack Black's character, Jerry. How I would have enjoyed his character Barry from High Fidelity here instead. Jerry could have been the video know-it-all like Barry was the music know-it-all. Instead, Black is stuck in an exaggerated, obnoxious, and rarely funny role.

I Hated:
- Jack Black's multiple vomiting scenes.
- The first 15-20 minutes. The power station scene was totally useless, the eating-while-wearing-colanders-on-head scene was distracting, and the rest (graffiti, Mr. Fletcher leaving on train) was overdone and boring.
- The dialogue, in general - Gondry
still does not have a comfortable handle on this type of American humor. The lines came off as awkward and flat.

Writing - 6
Acting - 8
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 38/50= 76% = C

Last Word: The meaningless term "Sweding" is symbolic of Be Kind Rewind's consistent weakness - its clever exterior hides a hollow center, and its ambiguity leaves you scratching your head and wondering if you've just been had.
I'm most disappointed because I'm a fan of the ingredients (Black, Def, Gondry, Glover, Diaz) in the film and I was left with a bland, sour taste in my mouth. I won't address the idea that the story is meant to poke fun at Hollywood and the YouTube generation other than to say it just doesn't work. Any meaningful interpretation is lost in a jumble of bizarre plot elements, clumsy pacing, and seemingly ad-libbed dialogue. Imagine, if you will, a simpler story about two guys who accidentally (not in this way) lose a store's video collection and have to recreate it in a certain period of time. Throw in some Gondry art - and that's it. Leave it and go. I don't know about Mos Def, but that's a role for Jack Black to do in his own creative way. Get rid of the totally exaggerated characters, get rid of the Fats Waller piece, get rid of the copyright violation and condo ordeals, and just a let a funny situation sort itself out. I'll still make my way to Gondry's next film because I enjoy his visual style, but after this and The Science of Sleep, it's hard to find positive words to say about his muddy storytelling.


  1. I think we're roughly on the same page with this one, though I tend to look at it a little more positively. It gets bonus points for intention that it loses with execution.

    I still have faith in Gondry if someone can strap him to a strong story.

  2. True, but the problem is that he's the one writing the stories as of late. I think an intervention is needed.


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