There was one movie that my movie critic peers and I were looking forward to seeing in these dog days of winter, and it was “Be Kind Rewind,” Michel Gondry’s wacko tale of a video clerk and his oddball friend who shoot their own versions of hit movies. Then, without a word, the movie disappeared from our screening schedule. Further research revealed that New Line was yanking all screenings from certain markets, and we lived in one of them. Considering that they had just shown us “Over Her Dead Body,” a movie that they should have set on fire, flattened with a steamroller and buried 50 feet below ground level, the decision to screen that but not this struck us as curious, to say the least.
Ah, but good news! The rep has passes for us to see the movie for free…but they’re only good beginning the following Monday after it opens. Whaaa? Surely the rep knows that we need to get our reviews up as soon as possible and will be seeing the movie at a Friday matinee, right? Why is the studio trying so hard to discourage us from seeing this?
I’ve now seen it, and I think I get it. “Be Kind Rewind” does not live up to the fragmented genius that is Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and is closer in spirit and tone to “The Science of Sleep,” his maddeningly loopy 2006 movie about a delusional dreamer. When the movie works, it is delightful. The problem is that those moments are far too infrequent.
The movie stars Mos Def as Mike, who works at the local VHS-only video store run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover). Mr. Fletcher puts Mike in charge of the store for a week as he leaves to do research on a larger, more successful video store, and gives him one instruction: do not let Jerry (Jack Black), a local goofball, into the store. Jerry is, well, a little nuts, and after a plan to sabotage the local power plant goes horribly awry, Jerry has magnetic properties. Once he enters the store, the entire catalog is erased.
But Jerry has a plan: they can re-shoot the movies themselves. After all, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), one of the store’s most loyal customers, has yet to see her most recent request (“Ghostbusters”), which means she won’t know what she’s seeing isn’t the original, so Mike and Jerry spend all day making their own version of it. The movie falls into the hands of her gang-banging nephew; he and his friends like it, and want to see more. Pretty soon, they’re remaking everything in the store, making more money than the store’s ever made, and drawing some unpleasant attention in the form of an FBI agent (Sigourney Weaver) who could put them away for hundreds of years.
The scenes of Mike and Jerry remaking movies are fabulous, guerilla filmmaking at its finest. (It brings to mind the story of the three Mississippi boys in the early ‘80s who remade “Raiders of the Lost Ark” shot for shot.) The problem is that the movie doesn’t seem to value the importance of those scenes, focusing instead on a subplot involving the demolition of the video store and the power struggles and romantic entanglements between Mike, Jerry and their new female lead Alma (Melonie Diaz). The movie also fast-forwards through character development, leaving us with a bunch of people who don’t quite act normal but no explanation as to why.
This brings us to Black, who is completely wrong for this movie. Gondry may swing for the fences when delivering the crazy, but it takes grounded actors to pull it off; Black’s manic energy is simply too much. The part was originally supposed to be played by Dave Chappelle, and while Chappelle is not the model of subtlety, it’s a lock that he would have had better chemistry with Mos Def than Black does.
All griping aside, I still maintain that New Line would have been better off screening “Be Kind Rewind.” This was never going to be a mainstream film, Jack Black or not. The movie’s target audience is movie critics, and people who want to be movie critics; let them see it, so they can spread the gospel. Sure, some of them will come away nonplussed, but that is bound to happen with any movie (look at all the people who hate “Juno”). In the end, both the filmmakers and distributors of “Be Kind Rewind” could have benefited from a little backbone. The movie didn’t seem to believe in the story it was telling, and ultimately, neither did the people distributing it.