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A Kind but messy movie about movies

by Glen Baity

It’s remarkable how much of video renting now happens through the mail, or from your cable box, or over the internet. With almost no effort, you could conceivably never go into a video store again.

I don’t, of course, encourage this. Video stores are great places, if you can still find one that isn’t a Blockbuster. The guy behind the counter should know your name and have a general idea of what you like to watch; the posters should be sun-bleached and well out of date; and the candy should be overpriced and of an indeterminate age.

Be Kind Rewind Video and Thrift meets pretty much all of those criteria; it’s almost always empty, another sad hallmark of the modern rental shop. That doesn’t seem to bother Mike (Mos Def), who is deadly serious about his position at the store, a cozy throwback located just down Memory Lane from George Bailey’s Savings and Loan. When we join him, all is already not well – the city wants to condemn Be Kind Rewind’s building, the better to put up a block full of McCondos. Piling on, loyal customer Jerry (Jack Black) accidentally magnetizes himself and, in a single stroll around the store, erases all the tapes (no new-fangled DVDs here, thank you).

Despite the fact that $25 and a trip to most any yard sale would replenish the store’s stock (and then some), a panicked Jerry and Mike come up with a plan that’s just… crazy… enough… to work. With some artfully-deployed junk for props, a little help from the neighborhood personalities, and boatloads of old-fashioned imagination, the pair remake classics like Ghostbusters and Driving Miss Daisy to the delight of film lovers far and wide who, like Jerry and Mike, have steered clear of any technology born after 1986.

The process, dubbed “Sweding,” becomes a local sensation when it becomes clear that a Sweded film is often more fun than the original.

The premise of Be Kind Rewind, of course, requires a little more suspension of disbelief than you might be used to. Director-writer Michel Gondry, who crafted such a perfect pocket universe in Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind (one of my favorite films), is sloppier here without screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s guiding hand. Consequently, what should’ve been an out-and-out charmer becomes a surprisingly frustrating experience.

You’ll want to love this movie, and you’ll be annoyed that so much gets in your way. Characters drift in and out of the plot with no explanation; the editing feels half-assed in a way that’s less whimsical than one of Jerry and Mike’s creations; and most of the characters – Black and Mos Def being the worst offenders – don’t interact so much as sputter dialogue in each other’s presence. There’s a throwaway subplot about the store’s owner (a wizened Danny Glover) staking out a big-box national chain to see how the big boys do business, but it wastes time and goes nowhere.

The highlights are the remakes themselves. I hate not being able to give Be Kind Rewind a more enthusiastic recommendation, because there are moments here that capture, as well as anything you’re likely to see, the sheer joy of watching movies. The film fans who rally around the video store are drawn to it by a sense of wonder in short supply these days, and there’s some real creativity in the way standard Hollywood fare is reimagined.

That’s why I can’t completely write off Be Kind Rewind. It’s a bit of a stylistic mess, but its heart is certainly in the right place. The closing credits prompt the audience to visit the film’s website to view Jerry and Mike’s “Sweded” oeuvre. You can get much of what’s good about the film right there in those YouTube clips, but you won’t get to see them with an audience, and that community experience is a big part of Be Kind Rewind’s gentle appeal. The film seems to mourn the passing of movies as cultural events, as something you look forward to, plan your evenings around and recreate afterwards in the company of friends. I wish Be Kind Rewind were better, because that’s a valid point that deserves to be made loudly.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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