Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is the first truly wonderful film of 2008. My guess is that it will end up still being one of the year’s great films come December. It will undoubtedly be the most loved as far as I’m concerned. I can truly say that I love this movie without even the slightest hint of reservation.
For my money, it’s the best work Gondry has ever done—and that’s saying something for the man who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006). It has more in common with the underrated Science than with the somewhat overrated (including by me) Eternal Sunshine, but it’s without the darker undercurrents of both. There isn’t a single cynical or annoying postmodern snarky frame in Be Kind Rewind‘s entire 101-minute length. That is its greatness—and possibly its curse as concerns its box-office potential.
There’s a trick to watching Be Kind Rewind. In order to go with the film, the viewer has to make the single small leap to accept a world in which a VHS-rental store could still exist and be run by a guy who is completely unaware of the existence of DVDs. That’s not much to ask, but if the idea bothers you, go see something else rather than wasting your time complaining that it’s “not realistic,” because you’ll have missed the point.
Gondry’s film is set in a rundown corner of Passaic, N.J., and centers around the video store of Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), which is run by Fletcher and his adopted son, Mike (Mos Def). The ramshackle store is on the verge of being demolished to make way for urban development—an event that not only will destroy a building Fletcher insists was the birthplace of legendary jazz great Fats Waller, but will find Fletcher and Mike relocated to “the projects.” The only hope lies in Fletcher making thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs and improvements to bring the building up to code—a seemingly impossible task. The likelihood of this changes when Fletcher goes off (ostensibly to a Fats Waller celebration held in the train car where Waller died!) to research why his store is failing, and what he needs to do to save it.
In his absence, Mike’s goofy friend, Jerry (Jack Black—for once just right for the part), manages to (fantastically) get himself magnetized during an attempt to sabotage the electrical substation next to his motor home. The magnetization causes him to inadvertently erase all the tapes in the store. Since there’s no way to quickly locate a VHS replacement copy of Ghostbusters for Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), a customer who threatens to tell Fletcher that Mike and Jerry are ruining the store, the duo set out to recreate the film on their own with a camcorder and a lot of low-tech ingenuity.
The surprise is that their 20-minute redo is a hit, and a market for more titles springs up out of nowhere. Mystifyingly palming off the extra charge for their “Sweded” versions of movies by claiming they’re imported from Sweden (despite being obviously made in Passaic), the store starts making money and Mike and Jerry become celebrities. They even get a quasi-girlfriend, Alma (Melonie Diaz, Lords of Dogtown), though neither quite admits to the attraction, and Alma herself is of the opinion that Mike is actually in love with Jerry. All this comes crashing down when the FBI butts in with a great whacking copyright infringement suit. But there’s still a solution—maybe.
That’s the basic plot, but plot isn’t what’s at the heart of this movie—and I use the word “heart” deliberately. Gondry has merely used the plot to celebrate community, friendship, love, creativity, making something out of nothing and the power of myth to sometimes be greater than truth. Maybe most of all, he’s out to celebrate the magic of movies—and the ability of movies to bond us. And he does so with the enthusiasm of every backyard filmmaker who ever existed, charting the growth from childish imitations of other people’s movies to the creation of one’s own art. (As a backyard filmmaker himself, Gondry is being nearly autobiographical in this regard.)
Perhaps there’s a Luddite streak in Gondry, since he so celebrates the handmade over slick production values. And maybe we’re at a time when that’s not such a bad trait, with the movies—and just about everything else—turning out such an array of polished “untouched by human hands” dreck. He’s never mean-spirited about it, and what he shows us produced in this backyard manner is surprisingly effective, raising the question of how much we need—or don’t need—all the technology available to us. It’s all sweet, funny, clever and moving—and it knows exactly when to stop. This is simply a wonderful movie.
Unfortunately—in a move reminiscent of the handling of Across the Universe—the distributors have chosen to only open Be Kind Rewind at one area theater, and not one in Asheville. Whether, like Across the Universe, this will expand in the next week or so, I don’t know. I do know this is one movie worth the drive to Hendersonville—and then some. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.