Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) put Michel Gondry on the short-list of directors to keep an eye on. It was inventive, sincere, emotional and hallucinatory - but it was hard to tell how much of that film's genius should be credited to master screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) or to Gondry, who was only known as a music video director before that, working with such bands as Massive Attack and My Chemical Romance. The Science of Sleep (2006), however, proved that Gondry could not only direct great material but write it too. Now with Be Kind Rewind, he solidifies his reputation as auteur in the making; in a time when "quirk" seems to be the name of the game (see Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited or Jason Reitman's Juno), Gondry is one of that game's young masters.
When the owner of a VHS rental store (Danny Glover) goes on vacation, he leaves Mike (Mos Def) in charge with only one rule: keep out Jerry (Jack Black), Mike's friend, who has a habit of inadvertently destroying things. Of course, Jerry doesn't stay out and shenanigans ensue. It seems that a failed attempt at sabotage has left Jerry rather magnetized and his presence in the store blanks all the tapes. Now, in an effort to save face with a certain customer who could report them to their boss, they grab a camera and film their own homemade version of the movie she wants, Ghostbusters. They soon realize that despite their amateurish efforts, their movie has began to gain a certain amount of notoriety and they soon find themselves filming their own versions of favourite films, everything from Rush Hour 2 to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
While not quite as provocative and intelligent as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or as compulsively inventive as The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind is a clever and endearing look at how community is built not only around geo-political facts but also around certain intangibles, such as a shared experience or a favourite story. Be Kind Rewind continually blends these communal factors as Mike and Jerry not only create their own versions of films but end up doing so in order to raise money to save the historical, but condemned, building in which the video store is located. The film is a statement about the power of art and is a loving homage to culturally significant films, films which ran the gamut from slapstick humour to razor-sharp political commentary. Art, when it is released, becomes the property of its audience, becomes a part of the shared experience that shapes and informs our communities. Gondry perfectly captures this in Mike and Jerry's "do-it-yourself/youtube" sensibility that at once celebrates art and gives it back to us.
But the film's not perfect. At some times it is a little too given over to sentimentality, especially in the film's final scenes, which were a bit too predictable and feel a tad manipulative. Also, while the actor's are solid and for the most part wildly entertaining, Gondry has a tendency to let Black act out a bit too much, as if he simply turned on the camera and let Black take it from there, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. My feeling is that Jack Black is only interesting when a director has a tight reign on him, when he's allowed to be manic and silly but only within the governed bounds of the director's vision, as he was in Stephen Fears High Fidelity, where Black's over-the-top performance served the film instead of distracting us from it. For the most part, Gondry manages to do this, although there are a few moments when the performance calls too much attention to itself and we remember that we are watching Jack Black and not Jerry. But in the end, these criticisms are minor and don't really take away from the film's charm.
Be Kind Rewind is at its best when it simply indulges in its own brand of comic fantasy and heartfelt whimsy. Mike and Jerry's films, horribly underproduced and amateurish as they are, are the pulsing, glowing heart of this film and are a complete joy to watch. They are not spoofs or underhanded jabs at Hollywood and big budget filmmaking; they are a loving homage and appropriation of the films that entertain and inspire us. Gondry has captured the enthusiasm and the joy of artistic creation and has himself created a minor masterpiece. In a spring movie season that doesn't seem to be offering much, Be Kind Rewind is a must-see for anyone who loves film.