Be Kind Rewind

Posted on August 7, 2008


This is a tough one to review. It’s charming, original, and fun. Coming from any other place, this would be a fabulous movie. However, it’s not just from anyone—it’s Michel Gondry. His resume is so good that I simply couldn’t help having high expectations. And the movie didn’t meet those expectations.

My biggest criticism of the movie (and this is an especially negative quality, something no one has ever said about the previous Gondry films) is that it’s predictable. Sure, the concept is very original, but I mean that once the concept begins, the progression of the plot is formulaic.

The trailer (that everyone saw before the movie was released), wastes no time revealing the strange Gondrian “what” of this movie (for Eternal Sunshine, it was the memory-erasing procedure, and in Science of Sleep, it was the protagonist’s penchant to actually sleepwalk during his dreams, carrying out actions which he thought he only dreamt). The creative rub this time around is that Jack Black has become magnetized— we learn in the very first few moments of the trailer that he accidentally erases the video tapes at Mos Def’s rental store. Indeed, this is a kooky, surreal kind of plot device typical of Gondry. But the trailer goes on to show us the solution they find (filming amateur versions of the movies themselves) and even goes a step further and shows some punk-looking tough guys coming into the store, sliding back the amateur tape, saying, “That wasn’t bad. What else you got?” So we know from the trailer the entire three act story arc: the tapes get erased, Black and Def film home-made versions to replace them, and the townspeople actually like their homemade versions enough for the duo to begin filming a bunch of them. The preview paints an exciting, possibly terrific new movie that Christian Lander correctly mocked as a “white person’s wet dream.”

And it was a wet dream for any fans of Gondry’s first two movies. But then, sure enough, the movie’s plot turns out to be the very arc laid out in the trailer. There really aren’t any big surprises from what you already know going in, though I suppose defenders of this movie could argue that the big twist is when lawyers show up to destroy the tapes for copyright infringement. I guess it’s true that you don’t see that coming, but it certainly isn’t an “exciting twist.” If anything, the destruction of the tapes actually leads one to wonder what the point of it all was; Black and Def make the tapes, everyone loves them, and then the tapes are destroyed. Sure, there’s a whole campy, uplifting rally in which all the people of Passaic unite and become friends, but that doesn’t redeem the movie. If anything, that sappy, neatly tied-up ending detracts from the creative, exciting, fascinating beginning of the story. Ending the movie on such a sappy, clichéd note undermines the entire Gondry oeuvre.

As one amateur reviewer put it at Rotten Tomatoes (on which the movie has a 67% fresh rating—not too shabby, but underwhelming for a Gondry film): “The premise of Be Kind Rewind is pure Michel Gondry. The end result is anything but.” That’s my gripe in a nutshell. The zany Gondrian twist—Black’s magnetic powers—is put to rest halfway through when Black accidentally downs a whole bottle of Advil that inexplicably cures his magnetism. From then on out, it develops in exactly the way one would expect of, say, a nice, friendly Olsen twins movie. Everything goes well, with a few bumps in the road, and ultimately the characters succeed in saving the day. The movie ends in smiles. It doesn’t work for a filmmaker who is capable of (and has given us in the past) so much more. That “so much more” includes both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which everyone seems to love, and the far more underrated Science of Sleep. The former is a favorite among college students as well as critical, discerning adults, and not just thanks to breakout performances like a serious Jim Carrey, an out-of-control Kate Winslet, a charming, shy Mark Ruffalo or a repellent, slimy Elijah Wood. All of them are great (plus Tom Wilkinson who is always, and I mean always incredible), but it’s the concept and the filming that shines. Scenes in which Jim Carrey re-experiences past memories and finds himself still vulnerable to childhood emotions are both fascinating and moving. Plus, the story toys with perceptions of chronology and reality. When the film ends with scenes of Joel and Clementine running around on the beach in winter, it isn’t a conventional happy ending, because these may be scenes from an earlier point in time, before they erased each other.

In The Science of Sleep, Gondry’s ambition pays off and he manages to effectively capture the experience of our wackiest, most tripped-out dreams. When scenes begin, we can never be quite sure whether Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal, who forcefully draws us in as he often can) is awake or asleep. In addition, the love story (because that’s what the film is) develops slowly and awkwardly. The courting between Stephane and Stephanie is odd and quirky—Stephanie is well aware that Stephane actually began by liking her friend, and the two of them muddle through whimsical art projects together in a limbo state between friends with shared interests and mutually enthralled lovers. Even by the end of the movie, it is still unclear whether they will end up together; Stephane falls asleep on Stephanie’s bed, even after she has tried to kick him out, and in his sleep he dreams of them riding a horse together. Much like after Eternal Sunshine, we leave the movie feeling engaged, entertained, but also uncertain as to the conclusion of the characters and their dilemma. This, clearly, is real life, and we recognize that somehow Gondry has delivered a message of realism while depicting the story in completely surreal ways. As A.O. Scott correctly puts it in his 2006 review:

“The Science of Sleep,” for all its blithe disregard of the laws of physics, film grammar and narrative coherence, strikes me as perfectly realistic, as authentic a slice of life as I’ve encountered on screen in quite some time.

This is Gondry’s mastery: blending the surreal and the authentic. And both films leave us wanting to see more of the central couples, Joel and Clementine or Stephane and Stephanie, respectively.

But this is not true of Be Kind. By the time the movie ends, you’ve had quite enough of Jerry and Mike, and there’s no need to go back, nor is their any mystery as to their future, since everything has been wrapped up with a nice bow.

Black, especially, is an unappealing presence. He plays the same character he created in High Fidelity, perfected in School of Rock, and then reprised in Envy. At this point, it’s stale. I hear he’s different and likeable in The Holiday and that his voice works extremely well for the surprisingly well-reviewed Kung Fu Panda, but I’ve seen neither one. In Be Kind, his character (and I acknowledge it could be the character, not Black himself, that you’ll resent) is a misery. He erupts rudely at strangers, nags and cajoles the mild-mannered Mike into joining him for ridiculous, criminal adventures, and all of this before he even becomes magnetized and brain-addled. The situation was a lot like the friendship in Superbad; the Jonah Hill character was such a whiny little bitch, such a fun-killing Debbie Downer, that it impaired my enjoyment of the movie and also made me wonder why the straight-arrow character (in that case, Michael Cera, here it’s Mos Def) couldn’t manage to find a less lame best friend.

Meanwhile, Mos Def and Danny Glover do fine; they’re pretty harmless. And Alma (previously under-the-radar Melonie Diaz) is adorable, though also rather irrelevant. A mini-arc in which she could become a love interest for either of the two guys (both start to like her) is briefly explored and then abandoned altogether, which is jarring. One scene even involves a face-to-face discussion between her and Mike about whether he has a crush on her. The moment ends with an almost-kiss (interrupted by, who else, Jerry) so that when the movie ends without ever re-investigating it, we actually feel like there must have been a scene in which she does kiss one of them, but the director cut it absentmindedly.

In addition, the entire setting is grossly implausible. As Owen Gleiberman writes in his EW review (which, unlike A.O. Scott’s raving praise, generally shares my reaction; he gives the film a B), Gondry turns the town of Passaic, NJ into “a touristic Retroland and hobby camp.” The real Passaic is an industrial city of smog and busy commuters, but the Passaic that Mike and Jerry have the pleasure of inhabiting feels more like the set of Toy Story. Local residents seem completely happy to look for exciting movies at a place that has maybe forty videos total, and only in VHS. It’s a pipe dream; the movie, from what I can tell, is supposed to take place now, in 2008. And yet, in today’s America there is nowhere—save perhaps tiny towns of 2,000 people in Nebraska—that a videocassette-only rental store could survive and do business.

Still, it’s not my intention just to trash the movie. The childish setting of friendly, smiling locals and Black’s bothersome performance are only minor problems. It is really only in comparison to his dazzling previous outings that this movie fails. On its own, there are still moments of pure delight. Many of these come from lines that are innocently funny (even in the Apatovian-dominated world of comedy, Gondry does a good job with ‘funny’ that doesn’t need to be raunchy), such as when Jerry and Mike are filming The Lion King using giant cardboard puppets, and Jerry demands that Alma say (as Scar): “I will piss on the bones of your ancestors!” There are also tenderly funny moments between Mike and his mentor Mr. Fletcher (Glover) such as when Fletcher writes a message backwards on the window (“Keep Jerry Out”) and Mike can’t seem to understand, presuming the sign says “Peek Yrrej Tuo” and thus at first concluding that Mr. Fletcher is illiterate.

In addition, there is a small bit of the patchy, amateur-esque animation that was so charming in Science of Sleep. A scene in which Jerry pees in the street while magnetized shows a river of urine flowing along, forcefully pulling objects such as soda cans and even a carburetor into its yellow river. The objects are sucked toward the gutter in jerky, cutesy little movements, as if they are living things crawling slowly toward the curb of their own volition. It’s the same style of filming that was used to illustrate Stephane’s wildly inventive dreams.

Additionally, the movie continually gives us brief scenes of old-fashioned, 1930s-era black-and-white film stock in which Mike is dressed up as the local jazz legend Fats Waller. It seems inexplicable (where are these clips coming from?) until the locals finally agree to make a documentary about Fats, and we realize that the clips are from the movie, and that Mike must end up playing the part of his storied Jazz hero. When they show these clips again, we view them in a new, more loving light and we feel a soft spot for Mike and his naïve worship of this symbolic local icon.

Finally, there are bits of their amateur filmmaking which are completely genius, and show us Gondry’s brilliant, inventive imagination. When the boys film Men in Black, they cleverly paste Matchbox cars onto a giant cardboard cylinder and then revolve it in the bottom of the camera’s field of vision in order to perform the illusion that Mike and Jerry are driving in the car upside down, above all the other traffic. Similarly, when doing Rush Hour 2, they need Jerry to be hanging from a flagpole off the side of the building, dangling hundreds of feet up from the street, so they have him stand on the ground and hold a pole above his head, then film it at such an angle that the stunt looks authentic. These little tricks of camera work are ingenious and entertaining.

So the movie is not a stinker, by any stretch. It’s fun and cute. It has delightful moments of creativity and playful banter. But there are so many things it fails at, and thanks to a campy, optimistic ending I hesitate to recommend it to any big Gondry fans, since they will be expecting from him something so much more than “cute.”

Posted in: DBR Blog