In his inventive if occasionally precious works, filmmaker Michel Gondry has tackled some human-experience biggies such as love, loss, memory and identity. Now, in the comedy Be Kind Rewind, he casts his fanciful net over another critical component of our scattered, busy lives: the pre-recorded film.
Things begin to go kooky when Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) leaves his rundown video-rental store in Passaic, N.J., in the hands of his assistant, Mike (Mos Def). Mike's erratic pal Jerry (Jack Black, operating at medium speed) is accidentally magnetized (does it really matter how or why?), and in a matter of minutes converts the store's stock of cassettes into video snow.
Faced with an unhappy but influential customer (Mia Farrow) whose Ghostbusters rental is unwatchable, Mike and Jack set out to remake all the films that were lost, using a video camera, geegaws from a nearby scrap yard, neighbors as actors, and lots and lots of brio. They even recruit a producer/manager of sorts in Alma (Melonie Diaz), a neighborhood dry-cleaning clerk.
To distinguish well-watched favorites such as The Lion King or Robocop from these decidedly different, ultra-low-budget versions, they pass them off as Swedish imports. The kick, of course, is that customers love the new "sweded" films, declaring them to be better than the "regular" ones.
It's Gondry's cheerful thumb in the eye of all those mega-budget, perfectly rendered but soulless films that clog up the multiplexes: Sure, the sweded films are a mess -- bad acting, poor technique, abbreviated plots -- but they got heart, and thus the renters respond in kind.
In the Gondry-sphere, Be Kind offers a relatively straightforward narrative. It doesn't have the space-time, fiction-fantasy mind-play of such earlier works as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. (In fact, fans of those more cerebral films may find this outing inordinately simplistic and silly.) But Be Kind certainly retains Gondry's sense of playfulness, his unabashed love of cardboard sets, and it does toy with the line between real and not-so-real, if only regarding our relationship to entertainment.
And for extra-credit quirky, Gondry introduces a subplot that's something of a mash-note to musician Fats Waller. The video-shop pals become convinced of Mr. Waller's early indebtedness to their now-shabby neighborhood, and the late jazz pianist's life story gets a glorious re-telling as an all-hands-on swede mini-epic.
Be Kind skittles along somewhere between sweet and slapstick goofy, without ever being ha-ha funny. It's an underdog story that requires the usual suspension of disbelief. But Gondry's heart is in the right place, even if our real-world experience suggests that amateur filmmaking rarely translates to compelling material.
What's celebrated here is the swede team's ingenuity and creativity in the face of no budget, and the shared community engendered when disparate people feel connected to entertainment -- whether it's a busted-up 20-year-old video; a sweded version of Driving Miss Daisy, starring the guy from the video store; or the discovery of a long-forgotten piano man who once drew appreciative crowds to these very same streets.
Starts Fri., Feb. 22.
- Who ya gonna call? Jack Black and Mos Def bust some ghosts on the cheap.