Feb 21, 2008

On Be Kind Rewind

Passaic, New Jersey is many things to many people, and maybe nothing to most. It is notable as the birthplace of television, Paul Rudd and bad sports journalists, but certainly not the legendary jazz pianist, composer and comedian Fats Waller, as Michel Gondry’s new picture Be Kind Rewind suggests in its opening credits sequence, a crudely ambitious black and white VHS doc about the West Village born, Harlem raised musician that cements the myth of Waller’s coming of age in the Garden State backwater while introducing the appealing but generally unsatisfactory picture’s funky, low-fi aesthetic and made for off beat, buddy comedy stars Mos Def and Jack Black.

Mike (Def) is a video store clerk at aging owner Mr. Fletcher’s (Danny Glover) Be Kind Rewind video store which, housed on a decaying Passaic street corner earmarked for development by some unhip, white collar, eminent domain trumpeting, city official types, is about to go the way that VHS did in a few years ago, despite the fact that Fletcher claims the building was Waller’s home and as such, should be preserved.

Black’s Jerry, a loony junkyard worker who, in a Chaplinesque bit, lives in a trailer directly underneath a power plant and is an unwelcome regular at Be Kind Rewind, enlists Mike to help him sabotage the power plant which he blames for his massive headaches and the ridiculous metal hats he must wear in a desperate attempt to ward off cancerous radiation. Mike flees when the cops come, but Jerry persists and is electrocuted but survives, magnetized and ready to accidently erase all the tapes in the video store upon his next all too unfriendly visit.

When it’s discovered that all the tapes have been erased, Mike, left in charge while Glover’s character stalks around Manhattan casing Blockbusteresque rental chains as if they’re Fort Knox in order to deduce that DVD is the way to go (whoa…), decides to remake the movies with Jerry as his lead. From Ghostbusters to Driving Miss Daisy, RoboCop to The Lion King, the amateurs start “Sweding” the erased tapes, remaking the originals with a campy, DIY zeal not unlike Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb and Chris Strompolis’ seven years in the making, shot for shot, VHS remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which finally found its way to a commercial audience for a few nights last year at Anthology Film Archives. Once Glover returns and the “Sweded” movies become a sensation, here come Sigourney Weaver in an unbilled cameo as a Corporate lawyer, come to deliver the copyright infringement, your going to jail forever news to the trio and their lovely co-conspirator Alma (Melonie Diaz), whose hinted at attraction to Mike his mysteriously avoided by the movie.

How is a video store in 2007/2008 that only stocks VHS tapes still in existence anyway? Gondry’s comedy, which can’t seem to get either Def or the normally robust Black out of second gear, is never able to transcend the illogical underpinnings of its plot and its numerous anachronisms, no matter how much fanciful whimsy the gifted Frenchman and his collaborators can conjure from the settings and their performers. The filmmakers style and governing preoccupations (the inner workings of memory, nostalgia and co-dependence, childlike wonder) crash against the verisimilitude of the settings and milieu he’s chosen in an unpersuasive fashion. It doesn’t seem like Gondry knew how to anchor the movie to either Mike, Fletcher or Jerry’s desires or destiny, leading to an abrupt and largely unsatisfying ending, especially for a movie this bent on being upbeat and zany.

The dishonesty at the heart of the amateur moviemakers Waller doc, the only “Swede” not based on a popular Hollywood property, is never really addressed. Strangely the movie isn’t interested in why Fletcher lied and neither is Mike, but this illustrates just one of many opportunities to create a rich and multi-faceted characters Gondry passes on, whose script seems constructed merely to provide him with opportunities to enlist his rich visual skills. The French wunderkind’s first primarily English language film in which he’s done the majority of the scripting is an alternately breezy and superfluous experience; Gondry’s made more challenging, richer and more self-reflexive movies before – this one just seems to rely on fun but retread pastiche as its main appeal and whose idea of fun does that sound like?