Watching a Michel Gondry film is a little like turning on children’s television while drunk: a haze of colours and good vibes that doesn’t quite make sense but has a clear heart of gold. While working in music videos Gondry’s name became synonymous with visual flights of whimsy, from multiple Kylies in a single take to videos built entirely from Lego. In the popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) he took the same style and applied it to a sharp script by Charlie Kaufman to excellent effect. But without that kind of rigorous backbone, however, things get just a little flimsy.
Be Kind Rewind follows the adventures of friends Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black). Mike works for Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) in a failing video store. DVDs are putting them out of business, and when Mr Fletcher takes a trip to learn the secrets of this new technology, Mike is left in charge with one instruction: “keep Jerry out”.
Unfortunately, Mike misses the message and sure enough, two days later after a surreal accident in a power substation, Jerry finds himself “magnetized” and accidentally erases all of the tapes in the store. Under pressure to deliver films for a local old lady (Mia Farrow) and a group of tough youths, they grab a video camera and try to remake their entire stock themselves with a sealing-wax-and-string approach they call, on a whim, “sweding”. Soon they’ve attracted local attention – but also that of some vicious copyright lawyers.
Like Gondry’s most recent, The Science of Sleep, this is a film that wears childlike simplicity on its sleeve. Mos Def captures the spirit perfectly and manages the more out-there material (of which there is plenty) without resorting to mugging and pratfalls. Jack Black has no such inhibitions but that’s why his fans love him and the first half of the film has a generous dose of his bitchy little put-downs and great big grin.
Gondry’s touch is unmistakable. Zaniness abounds, from the three leads wearing colanders as Tommy helmets to an inspired camouflage suit painted to look like a chicken-wire fence with KEEP OUT signs and all. But like the overlong mid-section of Eternal Sunshine, most are visuals without a message and, bells and whistles aside, the plot – such as it is – feels like so much padding for the “sweded” films themselves.
The remakes are the very heart of the film – for the plot to make sense they have to be things of wonder rather than the toe-curlingly dire stuff that gets forgotten about on YouTube. And this is where the film missteps. Not that the film satires aren’t funny – in fact, quite the opposite. The snatches of Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 we’re treated too are inspired. But we barely see any: like the alien in Ridley Scott’s film we’re given nothing beyond tantalizing glimpses. Instead we have backstage footage of cardboard cut-out special-effects that look unconvincing without the frame of the camera doing the shooting, and scenes of the growing queue outside Jerry and Mike’s video store, of people lucky enough to see the funny stuff.
There’s a strong sense of community – people brought together by unmotivated creativity – and the final screening of the Fats Waller film is produced by the town is, in true Gondry style, both inventive and touchingly low-key. But if we’re here to celebrate what people can just knock together doesn’t the 200-odd crew, celebrity-face Jack Black and Hollywood budget rather undermine things?
The film is certainly gentle and heartfelt, but despite several moments of startling invention it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers are having more fun that the audience. If the “making of” stuff had been dropped and the whole thing presented as a sketch-show instead – or if the 'sweded’ films ever appear on the internet as promised in the end credits – this might have been cause for joyous uproar. Instead, watching Be Kind Rewind is a bit like watching a home movie of a great party you weren’t invited to.