The operative words are “Be Kind.”
Rewinding figures too, both literally and metaphorically, with Be Kind Rewind’s nostalgic neighborhood video-rental shop setting (for the Blu‑Ray generation, that’s video as in VHS videotape) and utterly silly first-act conceit straight out of a 1980s paranormal comedy like Zapped! or Modern Problems.
But Be Kind Rewind is not only a far kinder (and, yeah, gentler) film than its 1980s predecessors, it’s also writer–director Michel Gondry’s sweetest and most accessible film to date, with none of the narrative convolutions and isolation of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep.
If I had to put Be Kind Rewind in a box, which is emphatically not where any Gondry film belongs, I might be tempted to call it Lars and the Real Girl by way of Bowfinger — the latter for its comic guerrilla filmmaking, but the former for its similarity of spirit, its gentle absurdism in an ode to benevolence and community togetherness.
Goodwill more than nostalgia is the prevailing sentiment. The goodwill that nutty Jerry (Jack Black) and gentle Mike (Mos Def) bring to their ludicrous scheme to save the video shop after a freak disaster wipes out its entire stock. The goodwill with which their efforts are received, and the larger goodwill ultimately occasioned by the whole business. Not least of all, the goodwill that the viewer brings, or does not bring, to the film itself.
It would be easy — far too easy — to pull Be Kind to bits; Gondry offers not the least resistance. He seems almost to relish his house-of-cards approach, so much so that the uncharmed critic might reasonably feel it a waste of breath to blow it down. I would agree. Hold your breath, let Gondry stack his cards for you, and when the topmost tier is complete I think you’ll be glad you did.
The story, set in my backyard in downtown Passaic, New Jersey, revolves around a video shop named “Be Kind Rewind” that could kindly be called struggling, if that isn’t too vigorous a term for the shop’s nearly comatose business. Mike lives above and works at the shop. Jerry, his childhood friend, lives across the street in a trailer on a vacant lot in the shadow of a crackling, humming power plant that causes Jerry no end of anxiety.
The shop belongs to soft-spoken old Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who takes quiet pride in his deteriorating neighborhood and rundown shop, and regales Mike and Jerry with stories about jazz great Fats Waller’s little-known connection with that very neighborhood and address. Alas, like most such institutions in most such films, Be Kind Rewind is in imminent danger — the death sentence, in this case, made out in triplicate. Not only is Be Kind financially insolvent, the building itself has been condemned, and there are plans to raze the entire block and build condos on the spot.
In an 11th-hour bid to save the shop, Mr. Fletcher reluctantly contemplates adapting to the business models of competing DVD chain outlets, and surreptitiously researches his competitors’ methods: more copies of fewer films, with the most popular mainstream titles and genres (action and comedy) shouldering aside works of more specific interest (documentaries, classics and so on).
Keeping shop in Mr. Fletcher’s absence, Mike has been told to keep unpredictable Jerry out of Be Kind — and, when a rare customer ventures into the shop while Jerry is there, we see why. But Jerry’s presence in the shop turns out to have even more disastrous consequences, due to his own botched sabotage attempt at the power station (which he’s convinced emits mind-controlling microwaves). Unwittingly, inexplicably, Jerry has become magnetized — and as he wanders through the shop, well, you know what happens when magnetic tape is exposed to powerful magnetic waves.
Suddenly the few customers who come into the shop are back in short order, wanting exchanges or refunds. Before long Mike figures out that it isn’t one or two bad tapes, but the whole stock. Of course, he doesn’t need the whole stock right this minute — he just needs to produce a copy of Ghostbusters for Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), an odd bird who happens to be a friend of Mr. Fletcher’s.
Panicking, Mike does what anyone in his position would do: He downloads a pirated Ghostbusters rip from a torrent site and copies it over the blank tape. No wait, I mean he rents the DVD from a local competitor and copies it onto the tape. No wait, he doesn’t do that either.
Instead, Mike hatches a scheme that only a character in a Gondry movie would dream up: He and Jerry will produce Ghostbusters the old-fashioned way… themselves. After all, they reason, Miss Falewicz has never seen it, so how does she know it isn’t a rock-bottom YouTube-level goof with no plot, a couple of guys humming their own theme song and a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of real marshmallows?
It’s so crazy it just might have worked — but then the ersatz remake winds up in the wrong hands… with unexpected results. And of course Ghostbusters isn’t the only film people want to see. Pressed to come up with more titles, Mike and Jerry stall as long as they can, explaining that the wanted films are, um, hard-to-find imports from Sweden, yeah, that’s the ticket.
Although it’s pretty much instantly obvious what’s really happening, for some reason the Swedish connection sticks, and eventually the “Sweded” remakes become a local cult phenomenon. With only Jerry’s mechanic (Irv Gooch) standing in for all supporting characters — including women — the collaborators quickly feel the pinch of their limited cast, and begin scouting for a more kissable leading lady. Although Jerry’s first choice, a Latina clerk at a cleaner’s, is unavailable, her sister Alma (Melonie Diaz) turns out to be much more than another pretty face, and soon the à la carte filmmakers have a third partner.
In a slick Hollywood comedy like Bowfinger, the “Sweding” process would be wackier and more over-the-top, with more gags and possibly more laughs. Gondry is content to go for naive charm and conceptual inspiration, which will delight some viewers while leaving others cool. Certainly the more familiar you are with the original films, the funnier the “Sweding” scenes are. My favorite bits include brilliantly low-budget special effects for King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Men in Black, as well as Jerry and Mike’s impersonations of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2.
In all this absurdism, there are a couple of bits of hard reality pushing back, both involving the inexorability of bureaucracy and the legal process. There’s also an emotional speed bump when Mike’s last-minute inspiration to save the shop unexpectedly opens the door to a melancholy truth he would rather not have known.
Be Kind is escapist fantasy, but its escapism is self-consciously so; the hardness of the world lightly papered over, but not really covered up or forgotten. “Our history belongs to us — we can change it if we want to,” someone goes so far as to say at one point. But Be Kind never forgets that there are limits to what we can change, realities we can’t remake, erase or rewind.
What we can do… is be kind.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.