New Line // 2008 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // June 17th, 2008
"To movies with heart!"
During its theatrical run, writer-director Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind got mixed reviews. Some critics saw it as a step backwards from his visual experimentation in earlier films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep; others didn't think it was very funny. While technically true, both observations miss the point. If you're in the mood for a "Jack Black" comedy, try Kung Fu Panda. Be Kind Rewind is something different: a beautiful fairy tale that celebrates movies, creativity, and community. It's also one of the best films I've seen in a long time.
Things go very wrong very quickly when Mike (Mos Def, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) is left in charge of a small video rental shop while its owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover, The Royal Tenenbaums), is away. During an attempt to sabotage a nearby power station, Mike's paranoid friend Jerry (Jack Black, School of Rock) has an electrical accident that leaves him magnetized, a problem that becomes apparent only after Jerry accidentally erases every video in the store. When Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow, The Purple Rose of Cairo), a friend of Mr. Fletcher, demands they rent her a copy of Ghostbusters, the pair devise a desperate plan. Using an old video camera, they shoot their own version of the '80s film over the erased tape and give it to her, hoping she won't notice. Jerry and Mike are shocked to find that their re-recorded movie gains a following in the neighborhood, and customers begin demanding the pair "swede" (Jerry's name for their homemade remakes) other erased films -- including Rush Hour 2, The Lion King, and Boyz in the Hood. Before long, what began as an act of desperation becomes the store's financial salvation, especially after they bring in the fiery Alma (Melonie Diaz, Lords of Dogtown), who kicks the new and improved Be Kind Rewind video store into better shape than ever. But booming business and local stardom may not be enough to save them when Jerry and Mike's videos get noticed by federal agents determined to shut them down for copyright infringement.
I blame Be Kind Rewind's cool critical reception on unfair expectations. When most people see Jack Black's name attached to a major release, they expect a movie with big laughs and broad physical comedy. While Rewind's plot synopsis might sound like the perfect vehicle for Black to milk laughs out of nostalgia and pop culture references, there's a lot more to the story than 90 minutes of low-budget movie parodies.
Here's the thing: Rewind is a fairy tale -- a fable. It's not meant to be taken literally. Jerry is electrocuted and becomes magnetized. He accidentally erases hundreds of video tapes. That doesn't happen in real life. Neither do a lot of things in the movie -- including Jerry and Mike's meteoric rise to local stardom, the villainous federal agents sent to shut them down, and the basic premise that people still rent videotapes. Gondry doesn't expect the audience to believe this stuff happens in real life; he just wants them to accept that it happens in the world of his film.
The same is true of the movie's apparent condemnation of modern technology and so-called "progress." If this was a drama about struggling coal miners fighting to keep their jobs, Rewind's heavy-handed depiction of soulless corporate Goliaths would be simplistic. But this isn't a union drama, it's a fantasy. And in fantasies you're not supposed to feel bad when the hero wins the fight and slays the dragon.
Be Kind Rewind isn't a realistic drama, but it's not a traditional comedy, either. Jack Black deserves as much credit for restraining his manic style in this movie as Jim Carrey did for his roles in films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine. Channeling the spirit of Rainn Wilson's glasses, Jerry is more a walking crisis than the disaster you'd expect. He's the comic relief, but in un-Black-like fashion, he doesn't upstage the rest of the cast.
Playing opposite Black, the versatile rapper/actor Mos Def is Rewind's biggest revelation. His Mike is sweetly shy, trying to prove his worth to the paternal Mr. Fletcher in the quietest possible way. The fatal flaw in his wallflower scheme, of course, is allying himself with the unpredictable Jerry, whose inadvertent tape destruction forces Mike to embrace his latent creativity.
Be Kind Rewind's large supporting cast is an impressive mix of veterans, newcomers, and first-timers. Old pros Danny Glover and Mia Farrow shine in their respective roles as spiritual grandparents to the neighborhood. They also act as a bridge between this movie and the kinds of older movies Jerry and Mike get famous for remaking. Rewind is a love letter to watching and making movies, and Gondry isn't above appealing directly on a movie nerd level, as evidenced by Ghostbusters star Sigourney Weaver's cameo near the end of the film.
As Alma, the fresh-faced Melonie Diaz has no trouble holding her own with Def and Black. She is chosen initially because Jerry needs a woman to kiss in one of their remakes -- perhaps Gondry's sly nod to Hollywood's tendency to objectify even the most talented actresses -- but she quickly proves her worth as equal to the men in business, creativity, and acting ability.
The film was shot on location in Passaic, New Jersey, and Gondry employed its culturally diverse residents as extras and background actors. Professionals might have been a safer bet, but the authenticity of using real people in a real place meshes perfectly with the film's most important message.
Be Kind Rewind is ultimately about the power of people to change their communities for the better. In the real Passaic, community members volunteer their time to make the neighborhoods a better, safer place to live. In the movie, Jerry and Mike's "sweded" movies matter because they're a catalyst for change in their heighborhood. The video store is successful because its customers are actively involved in making the movies they want to see. It's a powerful metaphor for community involvement: if you want to things to get better, you can't just sit back and watch.
Michel Gondry is known for visual invention, and while Be Kind Rewind might lack the sizzle of Gondry's earlier work, it's no less impressive. Most of the special effects are decidedly lo-fi -- used to bring Jerry and Mike's "sweded" movies to life. Fans of pre-CGI effects and movie history will appreciate the results: proton beams made of tinsel, pools of blood represented by pizzas, forced perspective courtesy of a child's city street play mat. The finest sequences are near the end of the film, when the neighborhood comes together to shoot their own movie -- a tribute to their most famous resident.
I hope this film finds more of an audience on DVD than it did in the theaters. Some movies just don't work as well on the big screen as they do from the comfort of your couch. As a celebration of the small screen, Be Kind Rewind is tailor-made for home viewing -- though it's too bad the movie won't be available on VHS as well as DVD, because New Line didn't do nearly enough with this release to take advantage of the difference.
The DVD's biggest problem is the bare-bones presentation. The disc has both the widescreen and full-screen versions of the film, with surround and stereo audio tracks, and almost nothing else. The lone bonus feature is "Passaic Mosaic," a short film about the real-life neighborhood where the film was shot, and the locals who participated. It's not your typical making-of, but it reinforces the movie's focus on community spirit. I just wish it was longer than ten minutes.
As much as I enjoyed the film, I can understand why some people don't. The story requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to accept not only Jerry's destructive magnetism, but the idea that these low-budget remakes would be so wildly popular. If this were broad comedy, no one would complain about flimsy motivations and too-convenient plot points, but because Rewind is hard to pigeonhole, the rules for watching it aren't immediately apparent. Like a bubble blown too big, the longer it takes to get control, the easier it is for the whole thing to fall apart.
If you're willing to leave world-weary cynicism at the door, Be Kind Rewind is a mesmerizing fairy tale about the magic of movies and the transformative power of people working together to make a difference. Depending on your point of view, it's either writer-director Michel Gondry's most boring film yet, or his most mature. Either way, it's his most personal. And I loved it.
Not Guilted! Oh, shoot...Cut! Can I try that again?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Passaic Mosaic"
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site