Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 29 February 2008
Source New Line Cinema 35mm print
According to the logic of the “independent” marketplace, after four flawed but highly unique and watchable films, it was about time for Michel Gondry to release either an interesting failure or a commercial breakthrough. Be Kind Rewind kills two birds with one stone. The story is high-concept enough to permit quick recapitulation: two New Jersey video store clerks accidentally erase all the tapes in their establishment, and decide to recreate them themselves with no zero budget and inexplicably ancient camera equipment. Their homemade remakes catch on and become highly sought-after specialty items, which unites their community around them and gives them a chance to fight the gentrification of their beloved neighborhood. This is a good idea for a film, and a commercial one: it draws on the shared cultural capital of mainstream blockbusters in order to make a point about individual creativity and communal action in a way that seems designed to appeal both to Gondry’s established hipster audience and a desired larger one. It’s a feel-good movie about how movies make people feel good.
It’s also a really bad movie, the first Gondry has made, though its faults will be familiar to all but the most enraptured viewers of his previous work. Part of the problem is that Be Kind Rewind is a mainstream comedy, or wants to be. (The presence of Jack Black indicates this, though really it does little more than indicate: he’s mostly just off in the corner making faces rather than interacting convincingly with anyone else.) It has the same populist ambitions and welcoming vibe of the movies – Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and Driving Miss Daisy, among others – remade within it. But the movie totally lacks the dynamic precision that makes crafted comedy, or even successful improv, work: it’s funny the way a socially awkward or insecure person can be funny, in fits and starts and sometimes unintentionally, but without the sense of ease and grace that even the most minimally talented professional comedians possess. The “Sweded” (don’t ask) remakes are by far the highlights of the film, but even they aren’t as entertaining as they could or should be, and Gondry lacks the mainstream filmmaker’s instinct to make them into reliable set pieces, throwing away more than a few of the funnier opportunities (Boyz N the Hood, for instance) in a brief montage.
Perhaps this failure to deliver on the promise of entertainment shouldn’t be surprising. For all his trademark whimsy and ingenuity, Gondry’s never been a particularly fun director. The reason he works so well in the music video format is that there the solidity of the entertainment tends to be provided for, leaving him free to add layers of nuance and anxiety to a structurally coherent pop pleasure. His features, on the other hand, tend to feel a bit less self-assured, striving to be both accessible entertainments and idiosyncratic nightmares, and showing way more facility for the latter. His one out-and-out success, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, makes this thematic, in that it’s about a man trying to make himself happy by literally erasing the bad parts of his own psyche, an apt metaphor for the complex negotiations between narrative superego and visual id that mark all of Gondry’s movies. And Eternal Sunshine benefited from a great script by Charlie Kaufman, who brought to the table both his own formidable neuroses and a sense of structure equal to Gondry’s sense of pyrotechnics. The result is a film both deeply strange and humanely affecting, a very tricky feat that has so far proved unrepeatable. His self-written follow-up, The Science of Sleep, retread similar ground with rather less success. That film, centered around the isolation imposed by constant creativity, was his darkest and most personal, but without Kaufman’s guiding intelligence it felt like a step backward into stylish self-indulgence.
Be Kind Rewind is a lot lighter than either of these earlier efforts, but the fun is totally forced; there is a lot of throwing stuff at the wall but not a lot of sticking. The premise is so obviously the best thing about the movie that Gondry seems reluctant to explore it fully, perhaps worrying he’ll ruin the joke if he overthinks it too much. Some other elements of the movie – Danny Glover’s complicated relationship to jazz legend Fats Waller, for instance – seem obscure and merely personal, but never take on the totemic significance of the motifs in Eternal Sunshine or The Science of Sleep. A lot of the movie just plain doesn’t work: scenes go by without accomplishing anything but a lot of anxious plot advancement while we wait for the next clever special effect. The goofy tweeness inherent in all of Gondry’s work takes over completely, giving the overall impression of a filmmaker desperate to please, but not quite able to do it.
In a way it feels uncharitable to criticize Be Kind Rewind for being amateurish or scattershot, since its message is that art and culture should be more spontaneous and personal and less polished, a point it repeatedly scores against soft targets like real estate developers, Hollywood studios, intellectual property lawyers, and the evil corporate monolith that is West Coast Video (guess Blockbuster’s product-placement people weren’t returning phone calls). The movie’s politics make it hard to hate but easy to see through. In his laudable attempt to celebrate the homemade, ramshackle, and D.I.Y. and rail against the commodification of culture, Gondry exhibits an aesthete’s bad faith: claiming to encourage and honor all creativity, yet somehow endowing every character in the film with a visual sense and technical ingenuity suspiciously close to his own. Are we supposed to believe that this is what aesthetic democracy looks like? The very fact that Gondry avoids any mention of YouTube or other actually existing forums for amateur cinema hints at the disingenuousness of the movie’s populism, which mingles uncomfortably with the kind of vintage fetishism (camcorders! VCRs! awesome!) that hipster art so often trades in.
One of the more interesting developments of Gondry’s recent career has been his attraction to African-American culture, an interest which sets him apart from almost every other white director of his generation. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was a truly joyous concert film, worthy of Jonathan Demme, and actually succeeded in conjuring (or perhaps simply recording) the vibrant sense of neighborhood that Gondry is after here. The fact that Gondry sets his movie about creativity not in some Bohemian enclave in Paris or Brooklyn but in economically depressed, predominantly black Passaic, New Jersey is at once the most interesting thing about the movie and its biggest miscalculation. It adds pathos but it begs questions; not the least of which is, how do these people who live so close to the poverty line have time to spend all day fucking around with a video camera? Gondry may be showing signs of discomfort at being an official Director White People Like, but it must be said that his camera never settles down in Passaic, which comes off looking pretty bleak for a utopia. The alienness which is the strength of his music videos and previous features is merely disquieting here, making you wish the movie was either more realistic or more of a fantasy.
The final sequence of the film, which suggests Cinema Paradiso Sweded by Spike Lee, is genuinely affecting, but everything that leads up to it just feels wrong. The central idea of Be Kind Rewind is that it might be possible to constitute a community on the grounds of art—an old hope, and not an entirely exhausted one. But where Gondry goes wrong is by imagining that people could be united by an art that’s so casual, precious and sloppy. That’s the kind of art that appeals less to those attempting to realize a common interest and more to those whose interests are already being served elsewhere—maybe a little too well.