Innovative auteur Michel Gondry’s latest curio is either boring or brilliantly boring. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep established him as the poet’s filmmaker; his window into romance framed it as fractured yet beautiful (and even better when gussied up with tinsel and colored cellophane). Gondry’s films are many things: insular, fanciful, low-budget, high-concept, stumbling masterpieces. They’re inimitable. So why then does his latest film take its cues from Bikini Car Wash?
Jack Black and Mos Def star as Jerry and Mike, two broke morons whose lives center around Danny Glover’s VHS-only video store. Rumor has the store was Fats Waller’s birthplace, but the city don’t give a damn about history—they plan to tear the place down and stack up some lofts. What next? You already know: slapstick and fundraisers. Only Gondry executes the formula with an over-faithfulness that molders into perversity. The jokes fall so flat they feel pre-pounded. You can predict every plot point but can’t figure out why Black, Def and Glover go an entire scene wearing colanders for hats. We’ve seen this movie before on Up! All Night, except Gondry’s feels warped and sour like it’s been rinsed in Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid.
As the first act drags on with Black going manic paranoid and whizzing out magnetized urine, this unfunny comedy feels like a car wreck where Gondry, taken hostage by a gun-wielding studio exec demanding he make something commercial, has deliberately driven them both off a cliff. Would an artist choose to make a defective movie? Maybe. A clue comes when the magnetized Black accidentally erases Glover’s entire video selection. Desperate to placate elderly Miss Falewicz (the decidedly not-elderly Mia Farrow), the boys shoot their own grade-Z version in cheap costumes and ludicrous special effects and their gonzo creation becomes a neighborhood smash. Soon, they and local dry-cleaner Alma (Melonie Diaz) have remade everything from Rush Hour 2 to Titanic and the rental line stretches around the block.
Jerry, Mike, and Alma’s versions are riotous, sloppy, and proudly no-tech—just like the film surrounding them. If we hadn’t seen the originals, they wouldn’t be as funny, but Gondry isn’t just banking on our awareness, that’s exactly the point. Slowly and hazily, Be Kind Rewind circles around its message: Film is our touchstone. Our culture is made up of Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Doc Brown’s Delorean—these shared stories may be the only thing that unites us. And while once we sat elbow-to-elbow in moviehouses where we shared popcorn and knowing snickers as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man terrorized Manhattan, now home theaters and digital cable drive us apart to sit in the dark laughing alone. Gondry’s a reactionary sentimentalist who knows that the CGI tech race misses the point. We’re not scared for the ingénue fleeing a blue-screen. We’re scared for the one actually running from something, even if it’s just Andrew the Extra in a monster suit.
Be Kind Rewind isn’t good, but it’s beautiful. It’s a stultifying bad movie that’s really a love poem to good movies and good-bad movies. Towards the end, the neighborhood bands together to make a full-length film about Fats Waller. The final product is ridiculous and charming, a shabby, silly work of art that doesn’t care if every frame looks fake as long as the passion is real. But the loveliest sequence during their screening isn’t found in the film itself. It’s that the entire block has pulled out folding chairs and climbed on lampposts to watch it as one, and we know that no matter what happens after the credits roll, they’ll all remember a night when everyone smiled.