BE KIND REWIND (2007, directed by Michel Gondry, 101 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Named after the greatest poem ever mass-produced on a sticker (although I always preferred “Bee Kind Rewind,” with the bumble bee), Michel Gondry’s latest twee ode to hand-crafted production design shows that the French haven’t completely lost their love for their imperious little brother across the ocean.
Only a Frenchman would see Passaic, New Jersey as the perfect site for a movie-lovers fantasy, a multi-ethnic post-industrial land of possibility, like Popeye’s old home of Sweet Haven. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) is the proprietor of what might be the last VHS-only video rental store, manned by the sweet natured graffiti artist Mike (all-around entertainer Mos Def). While Mr. Fletcher leaves on vacation, Mike’s goofball friend Jerry (Jack Black at his Jack Black-iest) is in an electrical accident and is left so magnetically charged he mistakenly bulk erases the store’s entire stock. Together they conspire to hide their mistake by videotaping their own versions of the films the customers wish to rent.
Right from the opening minutes it is apparent that Gondry wants you to swallow a premise so implausible that you almost expect the audience to erupt in literal choking fits. With the ease of Judy and Mickey staging a MGM-style musical in their backyard, Mike and Jerry throw together and shoot a Ghostbusters remake over the course of one night. It is so preposterous as to strain even Gondry’s powers of whimsy, and the film’s uneven mix of reality and absurdist fantasy makes it hard to ascertain the parameters of this mystical Passaic.
But once you realize that Gondry isn’t going to hit the sustained heights of his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (where he was aided by Charlie Kaufman’s melancholy script), you can still find pleasure in his flaky perspective. While they also remake Lord of the Rings and Rush Hour 2, it’s a distinctly ’80s nostalgia in which this movie revels. Recalling ’80s New York films like Do The Right Thing and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, Be Kind revels in the pop colors and cultural friction of East Coast cities. The films their customers like are Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy and 1991’s Boyz in the Hood, and when they branch out to make a Fats Waller biopic the neighborhood kids are break-dancing to the music. Of course there is no C.G.I. in Mike and Jerry’s low-res epics, so when the policeman takes a close range bullet to the head it is a large pizza that represents his blown-out brains.
The ’80s feel much more cozy and welcoming here than they did living through them but the modern world, represented by the inescapable encroachment of the DVD and a condo-developing realtor hints at a much more ominous Now. Gondry might be giving us love but it is a curiously retro kind of affection, more celebrating the America’s promise of yesterday than the reality of today.
Be Kind is helped immeasurably by the brand of the exuberance Gondry recently brought to his music doc, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a sense that community can bring positive change and cross cultural barriers. It’s like The Wire if everyone was dealing Ecstasy, making it worth checking out if only to see a portrait of America few American directors seem interested in painting today.