At its heart, the plot of Be Kind Rewind is pretty straightforward. A planned condo project threatens a struggling video store in a depressed part of town, and it’s up to a couple of misfits to save the day. From there, it gets a little quirky. The misfits in question are Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), a bumbling pair of friends just coasting through life. After tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist Jerry gets magnetized attempting to sabotage a power plant, he accidentally erases all of the video store’s tapes. In a panic, the two begin shooting their own versions of the films. At first, it’s to appease irate customers. Quickly, though, the pair’s efforts gain fans and the store begins making serious money.
In some ways, the premise of Be Kind Rewind isn’t that outlandish. Well, the whole part about Jerry’s magnetized body erasing all of the store’s tapes might be. The results of that moment, however, tie in to an increasingly popular trend of fans revisiting, tweaking, and toying with films.
YouTube is filled with “trailers” that paint well-known movies as different types of films ( Sleepless in Seattle as a stalker film, The Shining as a heartwarming father/son dramedy, Toy Story blended with Requiem for a Dream). In 2003, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the product of three Mississippi kids remaking the first Indiana Jones chapter in 1982, began screening at theatres on the arthouse circuit (the rights were also bought to produce a biographical film about Adaptation‘s creation). Long before Michel Gondry came up with the term “sweded” to name the remade films of Be Kind Rewind, regular people — armed with increasingly affordable cameras and software — had been turning films on their heads for years.
Gondry, though, stands tall as the director of the excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and as the creative mind behind many of Bjork’s most innovative music videos, not to mention the Lego-rific “Fell in Love with a Girl” video that introduced the White Stripes to the mainstream. So the premise of Be Kind Rewind holds all kinds of visual possibilities. Especially when Mike and Jack must create their films with absolutely no budget, resorting to tricks like using a refrigerator as the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bucket of ketchup for the pivotal scene in Carrie, and tomato sauce pizzas standing in for pools of blood for their remake of Boyz N the Hood.
To his credit, Gondry doesn’t overdo it — not every reimagining is outlandish or overly stylized, and he saves most of his tricks for a pivotal Fats Waller “documentary” — but the rest of the film isn’t cohesive enough to compensate for the fact that the visual hocus pocus is fairly subdued. Torn between sentimentality and madcap comedy, the film fails to serve either master particular well.
There are some genuinely funny moments (an improbable camouflage scene against a chain link fence), some truly lyrical ideas (old men gathering to listen to Fats Waller records in the train car where Waller died), and even some genuine film criticism (ribbing of Driving Miss Daisy as a condescending film). Ultimately, the film settles on the importance of community and film’s place in creating community — there’s an especially nice scene where an impromptu discussion of The Lion King overtakes a diner — as well as an elegy for quirkiness. Late in the film, store owner Elroy Fletcher (Danny Glover) says, “To hell with documentaries, oldies, cult movies. We need to simplify. Two sections. Action/adventures, comedies, that’s it.” The same could be said of the effect that the proposed condominiums would have on the Passaic, New Jersey, neighborhood they replace.
That connection is carried over into the DVD’s only real bonus feature, a short tribute to the Passaic neighborhood where the movie was filmed, using many of the neighborhood’s inhabitants as extras. It’s a nice touch, one which reaffirms what the film decides is its major theme. It’s a shame, though, that none of the film’s sweded remakes are included. Instead, the closing credits direct us to a now defunct website, a high-tech outlet that turns out to be as ephemeral as the images on those banged-up tapes once Jerry erased them.