Movie review by Greg Carlson
Michel Gondry, the music video maestro who champions a handmade, do-it-yourself craftiness in the process of making his films, might never top “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which has thus far been the strongest realization of his work as a director and Charlie Kaufman’s as a screenwriter. Sadly, Kaufman is not on hand to sculpt the story of “Be Kind Rewind,” Gondry’s tale of Passaic, New Jersey misfits who shoot their own low-tech versions of features including “Ghostbusters,” “Rush Hour 2,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “King Kong,” to name a few. Gondry calls this process “sweding,” and despite the movie’s anachronistic VHS time-warp, members of generation YouTube will smile at the remakes, mash-ups, and collages.
With characteristic calm, Mos Def plays Mike, a counter jockey at Be Kind Rewind, a dusty rental outlet that has so far avoided upgrading its inventory to DVD. Mike’s obnoxious pal Jerry (Jack Black) inadvertently erases the entire collection of tapes, and out of desperation, foolishness, and perhaps a smidgen of stupidity, the buddies shoot fifteen and twenty-minute condensations of hit movies with a beat-up camcorder and special effects that rely heavily on cardboard, wire, and any other unwanted junk that happens to be lying around. Their sketchy renditions cause a sensation in the neighborhood, and pretty soon supply is buried under an avalanche of demand.
Corporate suits arrive to levy a multi-billion dollar fine for copyright infringement, and Gondry manages a few sly asides about big media’s clampdown on creativity that echo some of Lawrence Lessig’s astute comments. Oddly, viewers of a certain vintage will identify striking similarities between the premise of “Be Kind Rewind” and the “Blockblister” sketches of Nickelodeon’s “The Amanda Show.” Charges of plagiarism are as tricky as the funhouse mirrors of “The Lady from Shanghai,” though, when the director’s raison d’etre is the intertextual flattery by imitation of homemade fan films, which have been around for a very long time.
On another level, “Be Kind Rewind” speaks to the intimate connection between audiences and their favorite films, and even though many of the “sweded” titles would not qualify as classics, the trippy digests point to an obsessive zeal that has manifested in the real world in works like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” and the recently resurrected “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.” At a certain point, however, aping one’s heroes pales in comparison with making something unique, even if Gondry likes to have it both ways. Ultimately, the filmmaker presumes that his efforts deserve an audience, though the vast majority of the amateurs encouraged by Gondry to pick up a camera and “swede” their own favorites end up making mediocre or awful garbage entertaining only to the participants.
The best aspects of “Be Kind Rewind” follow the directive that originality is more valuable than the replica, and the production of a documentary about Fats Waller by the Be Kind Rewind team and members of the surrounding community sound the movie’s expressive blue notes. Reminiscent of “Cinema Paradiso,” the exhibition of “Fats Waller Was Born ‘Here’” nearly transcends the silliness that constitutes far too much of the movie’s running time. It is pure fantasy to imagine that a no-budget, black and white biopic fabricating both the birthplace and the resume of a jazz musician who died in 1943 would fill the streets with bewitched and mesmerized passersby, but for folks who believe in the power of moviemaking, it sure is nice to think so.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/25/08.