French filmmaker Michel Gondry is best known for his imagination and his uncanny ability to bring the wild world inside his head to full-fledged, full-color fruition on film. His signature style is a cacophony of creative combinations – lo-fi effects with high-concept content, cutting-edge computer graphics with comfortingly common cultural references, quirky characters with sweetly sentimental storylines and so, so much more. So, it comes as quite a surprise when, a few minutes into “Be Kind Rewind,” you realize that the movie being projected in front of you is a full-fledged love letter to all things Hollywood. For a guy on the fringes of filmmaking, Gondry sure loves those mainstream blockbusters, and “Be Kind Rewind” is his tribute to their power to unite and uplift people across all the proverbial boundaries.
The film’s plot is deceptively simple. Mike (Mos Def) works at a video store owned by his adoptive father Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who is desperately trying to keep his dying business afloat despite the dilapidation of the neighborhood and the fact that format changes have left his all-VHS business behind. Meanwhile, Jerry (Jack Black) plots to destroy a local power plant that he believes is emitting electrical mind-control waves. When Mr. Fletcher finds out that the town officials want to demolish the dilapidated store and the structures around it to build a new, gentrified apartment complex, he goes on a trip to spy on the local DVD rental chain and leaves Mike in charge of Be Kind Rewind Video. Jerry and Mike go to sabotage the power plant, but Mike bows out at the last minute, and Jerry ends up being electrocuted – and subsequently magnetized – in a scene whose special effects are straight out of “Ghostbusters.”
Jerry goes to the store, and his magnetic touch erases all the video tapes. When the store’s only regular customer, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), comes in looking for “Ghostbusters,” Mike scrambles to find a replacement and decides to create a competent-enough remake starring himself and Jack Black. As word of the duo’s DIY remake spreads around the neglected neighborhood, people start coming out of the woodwork and requesting remakes of their own picks. And, as business starts to pick up for the store, Jerry, Mike, Mr. Fletcher and Alma (Melonie Diaz) – a feisty local Latina who ends up playing the female parts in the boys’ films – attempt to save the store and revitalize the neighborhood’s run-down residents through the proverbial power of cinema. Of course, first they have to face down a ball-busting lawyer who sues them for copyright infringement, a red-tape-wielding city representative trying to keep them from saving the store and the challenge of figuring out how to make the flying car scene in “Men In Black” work with a camcorder and a crate of toy cars.
The whole film is shot with a much more mainstream style than Gondry usually goes for, but his touch is still there, particularly in an incredible montage of movie-remaking that is as brilliant technically as it is aesthetically. Gondry is at the top of his game here, in terms of combining the crazily creative and the comfortably cliché. With his witty mix of high art and pop culture, Gondry weaves a wholly innovative work that succeeds in being both avant-garde and accessible.
As the manic madman, Jack Black delivers the kind of delicately-nuanced performance he has become famous for – which is to say, there is very little nuance involved in anything he does. Yet, as the film progresses, a character that could have been obnoxiously over-the-top settles into a sweet and subtler equilibrium that ends up being much more enjoyable to watch. Similarly, at the beginning of the film, Mos Def’s seems as though he might have some sort of mental disability, yet the movie never really addresses or elaborates on why he seems to be so slow and, in fact, those affectations disappear altogether as the movie progresses. Meanwhile, Melonie Diaz does a fantastic job of imbuing a character that is, to be honest, fairly cliché at this point, with a whole lot of heart. And, Danny Glover is his usual solid self as the group’s resident father figure.
However, all the acting aside, the film’s real stars are movies themselves. With every film the group remakes, the neighborhood becomes more and more involved in the process of production and its residents more and more revitalized. Even as the individual remakes themselves are tributes to the specific films they feature, the narrative arc as a whole serves as a sweet – albeit somewhat sentimentalized – story about the power of both movie-making and movie-viewing. And, with a closing scene that is straight out of “Sullivan’s Travels,” “Be Kind Rewind” proves that neighborhoods may change, film formats may evolve and Sigourney Weaver may pop into your video store to tell you that the studios are suing you for copyright infringement, but the movies will always maintain their magic.