FILM REVIEW: Be Kind Rewind (2008)

Be Kind Rewind (US, 2008)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Starring Jack Black & Mos Def

Be Kind Rewind, the sixth film of French director Michel Gondry, is a film I've long been interested in seeing. Perhaps the simple, "high concept" of the film - all the tapes in a video store have been wiped so (silly) home-made versions of Blockbuster films must be made instead - was enough to sucker me in. Or perhaps, reviewing the trailer I saw years ago, I thought this would be another goofy comedy full of Jack Black one-liners similar to his much-fêted School of Rock. How wrong I was.

Instead I was faced by a multi-faceted, semi-humourous and, to be honest, sometimes grim portrayal of life in downtown Pattaic, New Jersey. Mike Coolwell (Mos Def) is the (somewhat dim) aforementioned store assistant in the eponymous video store, tasked with looking after the place whist store owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) is away. In the meantime, clumsy and paranoid junk-yard owner and friend of Mike, Jerry Mclean (Jack Black), accidentally wipes all of the magnetic VHS tapes of any meaningful content.

Simple enough, it may seem. However, the main problem the film faces is its inability to define what kind of film it is. The film begins with the "magnetization" (for want of a better term) of Jerry. Distraught at the mind control that the local nuclear power station appears to be having on him, a paranoid Jerry attempts to destroy an electric substation, succeeding only in jolting thousands of volts of electricity through his body. Yet, this brief foray into unrealistic slapstick is a one-off. Indeed, throughout the rest of the film the laws of physics and medicine are generally adhered to.

There is little wrong with having a complex plot. This is something Director Michel Gondry uses to great effect in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nevertheless, Be Kind Rewind appears to suffer from a bucketload of ideas thrown together in order to give the impression that there is greater depth to its inherently silly and simple concept. For example, as the video store is facing demolition due to its decrepit state, the store's owner, Mr. Fletcher, decides to take a break and spy on a more up-to-date store for business ideas. When he returns he is adamant that his store, now selling home-made films like hot cakes, should convert to selling DVDs. Within seconds, however, this idea is refuted by Jerry and Mike and completely shoved under the carpet. All dramatic tension is lost and the video store owner's journey appears completely wasted and extraneous to the viewer.

It's almost as if Mr. Fletcher was written into the film as an afterthought, with no real impact on the movie except to provide a greater sentimental link with the building that the protagonists are trying to save.

The highlight of the film should be the way in which Mike and Jerry home-made movie copies in order to make up for the previously wiped takes. But despite the employment of daft, imaginative special effects to make the copies possible, these low-budget fancies appear trite in the AY (After-Youtube) era. A long take in the middle of the film, showing our protagonists tackling difficult scenes from Men in Black, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rocky one after another is perhaps the most rewarding segment in the whole film, yet, once again, the Heath Robinson contraptions we are used to seeing from Ok Go and the like devalue the experience of similar devices on the big screen.

These copied films are termed "Sweded" copies by our protagonists - alluding to a pretence of being made in Sweden. Yet even this concept introduced in a throw-away manner that disregards the fact that both Mike and Jerry clearly star in these films. Once again, this is but a plot device/(hole?) that is best ignored and not developed any further.

What is clear throughout the film is this is not a "Jack Black comedy". Rather than playing his stock larger-than-life comic character, Jack Black is perhaps at the most subdued he has ever been on the big screen. At times you could almost say he was playing second fiddle to Mos Def. Although a transformation from silly to serious(er) was possible for Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Be Kind Rewind was always meant to be a comedy. One could argue that the character of Jerry was miscast, but perhaps there is a stronger case to say that Gondry's direction failed to give Jack Black the dominance he needs to shine on screen.

All is not lost in the casting process however. Mos Def is perfectly cast and demonstrates himself to be one of a rare bread of Hip Hop MCs that can easily move over to the world of acting. Playing dimwitted comic foil to Black's character there are few complaints one can make about his role. Indeed, he is so believable that hard not to develop genuine sympathy for his plight. Furthermore, the film has a strong supporting cast, with appearances from Mia Farrow and Melonie Diaz and a clear attempt to paint as realistic a life as possible in Pattaic, New Jersey; superstar good-looks are out and realism is in. On a side note, the film's overall casting is a refreshing change to the racial (and age-based) divides in Hollywood that are currently on my nerves (for more information, see the "racebending" furore in reaction to the recent The Last Airbender).

So, in conclusion, what could have been quite an entertaining little film, in the realms of the aforementioned School of Rock or perhaps even more farcical like Shawn of the Dead, became a forgettable one and a half hour experience. Don't bother to rewind. Fast forward.

Rating: 2.5/5
Verdict: Too confusing to be a silly comedy, too silly to be thought-provoking.


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