Michel Gondry, the French director best known for fanciful films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and eye-popping videos for Bjork, Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers has, with Be Kind Rewind, made his most conventional movie to date. That’s not to say his sense of whimsy has disappeared—any film that recreates Fats Waller’s life using human hands for piano keys (more on that later) isn’t exactly blockbuster material—but the storyline seems more rooted in reality and not so much in dreamland this time around.
Passaic, New Jersey video store clerk Mike (Mos Def) and bumbling junk dealer Jerry (Jack Black) are longtime friends. Jerry jeopardizes Mike’s job and the future of the shop when he accidentally becomes magnetized (!) and erases the store’s entire inventory of VHS tapes. To prevent their most loyal customer, Ms. Kimberley (Mia Farrow), from telling the store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) that the store’s entire stock is worthless, they decide to make their own versions of the store’s most popular titles.
Armed with an ancient looking video camera and homemade props they re-create or “Swede”—Jerry nonsensically tells a customer the tapes are imported from Sweden—a number of well-known films including The Lion King, Rush Hour, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Driving Miss Daisy, Robocop and, my favorite, When We Were Kings and in the process become local heroes. The tapes become so popular they attract unwanted attention from a Hollywood studio who accuses the pair of illegally bootlegging the movies. Faced with bankruptcy and the loss of their beloved store, the duo makes one last film. With the help of the entire community they produce an epic biography of Mike’s hero, Fats Waller.
Gondry’s signature style is all over Be Kind Rewind. The film is a treasure chest of inventive visuals from the strange piano with white and black fingers substituting for keys—even Salvador Dali would be knocked back by that image—to a breathtaking real time montage of the best bits of their homemade movies. Gondry’s work here, as always, is a treat for the eyes. Luckily the film’s visual inventiveness makes up for the lapses in the story.
I love the ideas at play here—that film can be a unifying, communal art form which bridges race, religion and can even soften the hearts of bureaucrats (see the film’s final two minutes) that a movie with heart trumps Michael Bay’s expensive bombast every time. I love all that, sentimental as it may be, it really plays to my inner film geek, but Be Kind Rewind’s Achilles heel is the difficulty Gondry has in switching from the magic realism of the piece back into the more earthbound aspects of the story. Still, despite the awkward storytelling the movie has a gentle, heartfelt vibe that is hard to resist, particularly if you’re a movie fan.