February 25, 2008

So This Is Why VHS Died Out …

Print More

Be Kind, Rewind sounds like an awesome movie. For starters, it’s written and directed by Michel Gondry, the filmmaker behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, both interesting and excellent. Second, it stars Mos Def, Jack Black and Danny Glover, an unlikely trio that should deliver great results. And the premise — couple of friends making oddball versions of film classics — is a good one. Odd, then, that this movie just putters along in mediocrity, boring the viewer and going nowhere.

The first problem is the film’s scope. Gondry aims for the pseudo-fairy tale approach seen in films like Elf, using a plethora of deus ex machina devices in an attempt to cast a glow of carefree innocence over the film. This strategy, however, has the unintended consequence of making the story feel stilted and narrow and, worst of all, predictable. One leaves the movie thinking that Gondry had just a few good ideas going in, and faltered when he tried to fit those into some larger scheme. It would have been wiser to wait for more inspiration.

The story’s main conflict is something we’ve seen a thousand times: Mr. Fletcher, played by Danny Glover, must come up with sixty thousand dollars in a month to save his old, cherished video store in Passaic, New Jersey from being converted into condominiums (fight the Man!). Inexplicably, he leaves the store for a few days to go spy on West Coast Video, leaving the business in the hands of his young protégé Mike (Mos Def). Now, Mike has a zany friend named Jerry (played by Jack Black, annoying after five minutes) who, in an abortive sabotage attempt at the local power plant, becomes magically magnetized, thereby ruining all the videos in the store. What on earth are they going to do?

This is where Gondry’s creativity gets to show itself. The French director, who got his start making music videos for the likes of Beck and the White Stripes, is very arts and crafts-focused: He’s at his best making odd set designs and reveling in the joy of amateur creation. No wonder then, that Mike and Jerry’s versions of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and 2001: A Space Odyssey are hilarious and charming. Who would have thought of wearing a photocopied mask of your face so that you can shoot in negative, making it look like night? Or creating a keyboard out of human fingers (black and white)? The hasty productions win immediate popularity, and, after a couple of bumps in the road, eventually succeed in both saving the store and drawing the town together (sigh). This part of the film is fun and exhilarating, and you wish you were right there with the guys, making your own remakes. My personal choice would be Eyes Wide Shut.

But the pleasure is fleeting, to say the least. Gondry never commits to this looser, more creative side of the movie, and the audience suffers for it. Ironically, the word I would use to describe much of the film is “formulaic,” a criticism used by Mr. Fletcher himself in a barb directed against Hollywood hotshots. There’s simply too little of the good stuff, and what is there is only enough to make the movie seem cutesy. In Eternal Sunshine and The Science of Sleep, by contrast, the strangeness and innovation were front and center, as important as anything else in the plot. Here, Gondry shies away from everything that’s interesting, opting to couch it in a lame and sentimentalized story. What we’re left with are random oddities, like the three stars wearing colanders on their heads, or the remaking process being dubbed “sweding” (don’t ask me).

And what a waste, because the portions of the film where Mike and Jerry are at work are superb — especially at the end, when the entire town gets involved — and they’re superb because Gondry is showing off. But you can’t show off too much when Jack Black is raving about gay kisses, or something else equally stupid. Much of this movie can be adequately described as filler, and it’s frustrating.

If I could do a remake of Be Kind, Rewind, the final running time would be about 15 minutes, and Jack Black would have a non-speaking role. Also, I would add more women, because methinks I smell a sausage-fest. But oh, well — at least it was a good idea. Better luck next time, Gondry.