Hate on Michel Gondry’s whimsical comedy all you want. Be Kind Rewind would have to get juiced on killer steroids to even qualify as lightweight. But at least credit the visual stylist behind innovative music videos for Björk, Radiohead, the White Stripes and the Rolling Stones, award-winning commercials for Levi’s 501 jeans, the Gap and Smirnoff vodka, and vividly cinematic flights of fancy such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep for knowing what the fuck he is doing. To judge from early reviews of Be Kind Rewind, Gondry, 44, hardly knows what time it is. Why the hell in the new digital century would this savvy French innovator make a movie about a store in blue-collar Passaic, New Jersey, that rents movies in old, moldy, analog VHS? At a time when sex and lies have transferred to DVD, Gondry goes to the videotape. What’s up with that?
Plenty, as it turns out. Without turning Luddite (named after the 1811 British social movement that opposed all technological progress), Gondry is taking measure of what we’ve lost in the name of progress. He’s suggesting that maybe digital’s pristine perfection is a tad dehumanizing. Like his 2006 documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, set in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Be Kind Rewind is a neighborhood movie. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who runs the video-only shop, claims it was once the home to jazz great Fats Waller, whose photographs and music resonate throughout the movie. True or not, it’s one way Fletcher hopes to save his code-violating Be Kind Rewind shop from the wrecking ball. As Fletcher boards a train to attend a commemoration of Waller, who died in 1943, he leaves his store in the hands of his assistant, Mike (Mos Def). There’s one caveat: Mike must keep his nutso friend Jerry (Jack Black) away from the store.
Solid advice, which Mike doesn’t heed. Def is likably low-key. Black, in his puppy-dog eagerness to bolster the weak plot, indulges in facial contortions that would shame a caffeinated cartoon. It seems that Jerry, a mechanic living in a trailer, thinks the local power plant is trying to fry his brain waves. In a futile attempt at sabotage, Jerry gets zapped by electricity. The voltage is not enough to kill him, but it is sufficient to demagnetize the entire stock of videotapes in the shop. All is lost until Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), a regular customer, comes in to rent Ghostbusters, and the boys hatch a scheme. Using a video camera with no discernible skill, they produce short, homemade versions of all the movies, ring themselves and local talent, including Alma (the lively Melonie Diaz).
Gondry and the gifted indie cinematographer Ellen Kuras have fun with the amateur versions of the likes of RoboCop, Rush Hour, 2001: A Space Odyssey, King Kong and Driving Miss Daisy. These snippets are fun but frustratingly brief. The mugging, however, is nonstop. Gondry, as writer and director, can’t stop the creative helium from leaking out of his cinematic balloon. The parallels to Waller’s jazz idiom just won’t hold. There was genius in Waller’s simplicity — just listen to “Ain’t Misbehavin'” or “Honeysuckle Rose.” Gondry’s master plan is to show a community bonding in an effort to create a raw art out of the past and a vision for what’s next. Sadly, he gets no closer than the rookie efforts you see on YouTube and MySpace. But Gondry is right: The striving counts.