There’s no witty way to lead into the crux of this review: mad cinematic scientist Michel Gondry can do better than this. Be Kind, Rewind doesn’t wind up an unwatchable and offensive mess, and in fact there’s a great deal of enjoyable content contained within the film’s hour and forty running time, but maybe more than any picture Gondry has directed to date (though admittedly I can’t speak to the virtues of The Science of Sleep), his 2008 effort becomes characterized by massive amounts of spurned potential for greatness. We live in the YouTube era, a time where user-created content has achieved a greater visibility and prevalance in our contemporary popular culture. A film about precisely that should feel completely timely, relevant, and meaningful, and Be Kind, Rewind never fully realizes any amongst this trio of elements.
The film focuses on Fletcher (a grizzled Danny Glover), his adopted son, Mike (a surprisingly mellow Mos Def), and their efforts to protect their dilapidated video store in the heart of a neighborhood quickly falling under the influence of a town official’s gentrification plan. When Mike’s nutty friend, Jerry (Jack Black being Jack Black) gets magnetized in a freak accident– he tries to sabotage the power plant his trailer rests nearby– all of Fletcher’s VHS tapes become erased. With no time to waste, Mike and Jerry do what any of us would do– they make their own versions of the deleted pictures, starting with Ghostbusters and covering, well, anything that you could possibly think up. They enlist the aid of spunky, plucky Alma (Melonie Diaz) and the trio finds that their films (referred to as “Sweded”, as in imported from Sweden, to justify high rental charges) have developed a loyal following amongst the neighborhood residents. Eventually, the locals become involved in the creative process, and a number of events come to light that threaten the continued success of the Be Kind, Rewind operation.
There’s so much potential in that synopsis that the film’s failure to totally flesh out any of its myriad plot threads is almost appalling. Conflicts arise ostensibly for the purpose of propelling the plot forward, but as soon as they’re introduced they resolve. There’s no room for any kind of dramatic tension to develop. When a pair of court bailiffs come to collect and destroy the Sweded tapes, there’s an expectation that Mike, Jerry, Alma, and the neighborhood will come together to repel the interlopers and preserve the work that they’ve collaborated on with each other. Call Gondry bold for defying expectations, if you will, but what he does with that conflict is akin to sticking a thumbtack into an inflatable castle and watching it slowly deflate, and with it our enjoyment and happiness. The bailiffs come and go so quickly that their characters, and their actions, never feel like they actually have any bearing on Be Kind, Rewind‘s narrative; they could be cut out from the film entirely and we’d barely miss them.
Similarly, Fletcher’s decision to switch his store over from VHS to DVD to get with the times and compete with the nearby chain video rental store almost doesn’t feel like it happens. It’s rushed, like the bailiffs. One begins to wonder how much footage Gondry and Jeff Buchanan left on the cutting room floor. But maybe that’s entirely what they’re going for; intentionally leaving their film feeling unfinished, incomplete, and lacking something mirrors the patched-together nature of the Sweded films Mike, Jerry, Alma, et al create. I doubt that that’s the case (though there are layers of Sweding going on throughout the film, notably in how it plays with the story of jazz legend Fats Waller), but I could see the argument being made in their defense. Either way, Be Kind, Rewind is missing some meat from its bones, and at a fairly lean hour and forty minute running time Gondry could easily have afforded to expand his film.
I won’t say that the film is a total waste. Footage of the process of Sweding films is wonderful, and frequently very creative (keep an eye out during the montage of finished Sweded films for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Men In Black), beautifully depicting how imagination, drive, and enthusiasm truly fuel the movie-making process. Be Kind, Rewind also deserves a great deal of credit for portraying the collaborative process of filmmaking, reminding us that a movie is never the result of one person’s efforts; it often takes an army, or in this case a neighborhood, to put all of the pieces into place to bring a film to life. And sure, we’re just talking about no-budget short renditions of famous and iconic films here, but even making a twenty/ten/five minute picture requires a lot of effort and a lot of helping hands.
The cast also clearly had a lot of fun with the story and with their characters, and while Jack Black gets to be too Jack Black-ish after a pretty brief period of screen time (though he’s pretty muted here compared to other roles he’s done), he’s tempered by Mos Def’s laid-back affability as well as Diaz’s unbridled moxie. Glover, as well as Mia Farrow, are given little to do througout the movie, though Glover shines whenever he’s on camera. Both actors feel as though they, especially, had a lot of their respective (and shared) stories excised from the final cut of the film.
But as fun as the actors are, and as dazzling as some of the Sweding is, it’s just not enough to yield a satisfying and full-bodied picture. Be Kind, Rewind is probably worth seeing on its own merits, but it definitely marks a huge misstep for Gondry (and for that reason, it might be worth viewing as a failed experiment). Coming from a less accomplished artist, this film might have felt like something special, or at least acted as a sign indicating potential in its creator, but with Be Kind, Rewind Gondry leaves a number of themes unexplored that he should have been able to pin down and examine. It’s a big backpedal for the director, who undoubtedly is capable of better.