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Be Kind Rewind

Jack Black and Mos Def play friends who remake popular movies

A film review by Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times

Be Kind Rewind

USA, 2008
Director Michel Gondry
Starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz, Irv Gooch, Chandler Parker, Arjay Smith

Throughout Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind,” I couldn’t decide if I was watching a cleverly timely and zeitgeist-y riff on the make-your-own-media era or a weirdly anachronistic throwback to a time that’s not coming back. It’s a tossup. Sweet-natured and likable as the movie is, it never really delivers on the promise of its ingenious premise, which hints at a subversive retelling of mainstream Hollywood movies but stops short at goofy homage.

Gondry, champion of all that is lo-fi, DIY and crafty, and fearless defender of the mechanical over the digital, has made a movie about a couple of guys who accidentally demagnetize an entire video store’s inventory and decide to restore the videos by shooting lo-fi, DIY and crafty versions of their own. Video store, you say? That’s right. VHS tapes? Yes. And the story’s not set in the past, either, despite its characters’ seemingly quenchless thirst for the blockbusters of the 1980s.

This technical anachronism is addressed by setting up the Passaic, N.J., store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), as an old-fashioned guy who refuses to kowtow to the so-called demands of the market, and who couldn’t afford to even if he wanted to. The building that houses his store is condemned, despite his dubious claim that it also happens to be the birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller.

A loopy and likable Mos Def plays Mike, Mr. Fletcher’s unofficially adopted son and sole employee. Jack Black is Mike’s cranky friend Jerry, who lives and works at a nearby junkyard and is convinced that the neighboring power plant’s “microwaves” are affecting his brain. Disaster strikes when Mr. Fletcher leaves town for a few days, putting Mike in charge of the store. Jerry suffers an electrical mishap that leads to the erasing of the inventory, and they come up with the plan to remake “Ghostbusters” to throw off Mr. Fletcher’s old friend Mrs. Falewicz ( Mia Farrow), who is starting to become suspicious.

Old Mrs. Falewicz may be too fuzzy to tell the difference between the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and a little pile of flambéed S’mores, but her nephew and his friends aren’t. Soon, the neighborhood is clamoring for Mike and Jerry’s “Sweded” remakes. (The two pretend the movies are being ordered from Sweden to justify the delay and expense of renting them.) They recruit a pretty local girl named Alma (Melonie Diaz) from the dry cleaner to be their costar and crew, and when they reach their production capacity, they invite people from the neighborhood to help produce and star in their favorites.

If this sounds like an interesting comment on the intersection between postmodern artistic appropriation and copyright infringement, it’s not, exactly. It’s more like the setup to a comment that never quite gets made. Aside from coming up with ways to build props and replicate special effects using nothing but junkyard finds and ingenuity, the friends turn out not to have all that much to say about the movies they’re remaking. Sure, Mrs. Falewicz fixation on “Driving Miss Daisy” drives Mike crazy, but rather than turn the movie on its ear, he just sulks and storms off the set. When they like a movie, they approach it like lovelorn fan-boys, not Po-mo warriors. Given the chance to subvert the paradigm, they mostly just shorten the running time.

The movie-making montage sequences are the film’s most delightfully inventive scenes, as when Mike and Jerry shoot day-for-night by switching the camera to “negative,” then wear negative photocopies of their faces as masks to reverse the image once again. But the sense of fun that animates the movie doesn’t quite make up for the fact that it just doesn’t have the swoony, emotional pull of Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or even his more recent “The Science of Sleep.” You get the feeling that without a more romantic collaborator, or at the very least a love story to torture himself with, Gondry forgets all about relationships and would happily lock himself in the workshop to tinker with his gadgets forever.

That’s not to suggest that his gadgets aren’t great or that the plucky energy of “Be Kind Rewind” isn’t eminently likable. And there’s something about Gondry’s persistent nostalgia that feels contemporary, or opportune, at least. The director seems to be talking back to the monoculture without acknowledging that he’s doing it, raising a cheerful fist in defense of the little guy, the artist, the individual voice. Meanwhile, though, the monoculture is busy assimilating the little guy as fast as it can, so Gondry’s message gets scrambled. Mike and Jerry are charging top dollar for their remakes, after all, so when Sigourney Weaver makes an appearance as a copyright attorney for the studios, you hardly know what to think. After all, what Mike and Jerry are engaged in here is not piracy, it’s more like karaoke — imitation as the sincerest, and sometimes most painful, form of flattery.