I like Jack Black as much as the next fat spaz, but my man doesn't make it easy. While it has been encouraging to see him working with better and more interesting directors, a new Jack Black film is a little like a date with a sketchy ex -- maybe he's got a new haircut and a stupid accent from six months abroad, but by the first course he's back to cutting his spaghetti into bite-sized pieces while insulting you with what he considers his trademark wit. And you remember: Oh yeah, this clown broke my heart.
Thus it was with excitement and trepidation that I pondered the teaming of the incorrigible eyebrow with reedy space cadet Michel Gondry; Be Kind Rewind, Gondry's follow-up to his writing/directing debut The Science of Sleep, has potential and pitfalls in equal measure. Sleep was criticized by some as just that side of self-indulgent, the idea being that the clearly brilliant director needs a salty dram of stone-cold plot to cut the heady, cotton candy structuring that seems to characterize even his darkest, saddest visions. In other words, he needs a writer, a comedian or a song (Gondry began his career as a breakthrough video director) to impose his ethereal jujitsu upon. In other other words, he needs Charlie Kaufman.
Gondry and Black, having earned qualified endorsement and a kind of helpless loyalty from their fans, had the opportunity with Be Kind Rewind to throw down with an unambiguous success; the story of an ass-broke video store in New Jersey whose whole entire library is re-shot, commando-style, by a couple of locals is at the least a promising lure. The results, however, are as mixed as the reputation of the film's marquee name.
Passaic, N.J., is home to Be Kind Rewind, a video outlet owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who insists the space is itself the former home of jazz legend Fats Waller. Mr. Fletcher is sticking with VHS, although, in a fundamental logical hiccup, it is never suggested why; it's not like videotape is the vinyl of home entertainment. The purist cause was lost with the advent of video itself, a battle perhaps best portrayed in Boogie Nights. It's one of several leaps we are asked to make in the name of nostalgia.
So what is Be Kind Rewind about? Technically it's about a walking zero named Jerry (Black), who magnetizes himself in a paranoid attempt to sabotage a local power plant, and his friend Mike (Mos Def), who is put in a terrible bind when Jerry erases all of the tapes in Be Kind Rewind -- where he is a clerk -- just by touching them. Jerry and Mike decide to shoot a new version of Ghostbusters when Miss Falewicz (an echo-chamber vacant Mia Farrow) comes by to rent it, lest she tattle to Mr. Fletcher (away researching DVD empires) that the riff-raff have ruined his business. Pretty soon these "sweded" videos are the hottest thing going, and their popularity may have a chance of saving Be Kind Rewind from imminent demise.
The argument that gave Ratatouille its upstart, underdog charm -- anyone can cook -- is rendered here with the same heart but a lack of panache. The idea, of course, that anyone can make a film is much more interesting and volatile in its theoretical byways and meta-nerdy off-ramps, which makes the film's slippery grasp of it that much more disappointing. "Maybe I am in Ghostbusters," Jerry argues, when Mike doubts the viability of their guerrilla efforts. As it turns out, their customers don't need to be duped; what they crave is the spirit of the thing, and the love of that spirit, and in the sequence in which Jerry and Mike are shown shooting everything from Robocop to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg -- eventually casting their audience -- the spirit of Be Kind finally takes flight. After a set-up that is part bad '70s sitcom, part tiresome Jack Black hamming, and effects that are straight out of, well, Ghostbusters, the exhilaration is welcome but fleeting. Gondry's dialogue tends toward the embarrassingly obvious ("They'll become stockholders in their own happiness," local recruit Alma (Melonie Diaz) says, arguing for the inclusion of the public in the films), which may be a second language problem of clunkiness, but many of the jokes hit a light and witty mark that belies their undertow of sadness, smartness and wist.
Susan Sontag said that photographs don't record the past, they invent it, and the fact that I am even dropping the S-bomb in this review is a credit to and indication of Gondry's deceptively offhand ambitions for his film. A copyright crackdown spurs the community to make their own film, a documentary of Fats Waller's life, with the idea that the past belongs to them, and they can do with his story what they will. If it weren't so genuinely ramshackle, Be Kind Rewind would be a terrific, brainy thesis film masked as shabby, pop fantasy lark. Gondry-lovers will want more from their boy, Black stalwarts will definitely want better for theirs. It is as it was, but the film's flaws do not make it unworthy of a look, if only because true believers may find themselves wondering, during the inspired core sequence, if maybe Jerry really is in Ghostbusters; in that moment we are definitely all in Be Kind Rewind.
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