In some circles, the watchword these days is “Buy local.” Homegrown veggies and locally brewed beers, local music . . . and local film? Maybe not. While homemade, low-budget filmmaking is certainly thriving, most people looking for an evening of escapist fun still get it from Hollywood.
What if they didn’t? Writer-director Michel Gondry’s new movie Be Kind Rewind plays with the idea of a truly local cinema. It’s also a hymn to a virtually obsolete technology — the VHS tape. At the eponymous video store in Passaic, New Jersey, run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), nobody knows or cares that Blu-ray just defeated HD DVD in the latest battle of the entertainment formats. They’re still renting videocassettes for a dollar a day. But when Fletcher finds out that city planners have slated his moribund store for demolition, he decides it’s time to do some market research — maybe even update. He leaves Be Kind Rewind in the care of manager Mike (Mos Def), whose demented friend Jerry (Jack Black), a conspiracy theorist who lives in a trailer, promptly suffers a bizarre accident that causes him to erase every tape in the store.
With his stock wiped out, Mike has to deal with customers such as crochety Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), who demands his copy of Ghostbusters. Rather than teach her how to use Amazon.com, he and Jerry decide to shoot their own version of the Bill Murray flick and pass it off as the real thing. They use Christmas tinsel for ectoplasm and an auto mechanic in drag as Sigourney Weaver, and they don’t much bother with editing or second takes.
This premise is so ridiculous, it’s kind of great. No one’s fooled by the re-enactments, of course. But soon Be Kind’s customers decide they like the duo’s ultra-low-tech remakes of blockbusters better than the originals, and Mike and Jerry create their own versions of everything from Robocop to The Lion King. They even find a real girl (Melonie Diaz) for the “kissing scenes.
Like the school play at the climax of Rushmore, Mike and Jerry’s productions take all the inherent silliness of big-budget movies and make them look even sillier by lovingly recreating them in a barebones format, with seat-of-the-pants ingenuity. As the star of the show — Mike serves as director — Jack Black gets to do what he does best: go on semi-improvisational tears, riffing on familiar scenes from familiar movies.
Gondry let visual gimmickry overwhelm story in his last feature, The Science of Sleep. Here he assembles a fine cast who put the human element at center stage. Mos Def is subtle and expressive even when he’s playing straight man to Black; Glover is dignified and likeable; Farrow is appealingly dotty; and Diaz has a piquant, Rosie Perez quality.
But as a whole, Be Kind Rewind fails to live up to its promise, and the weak link is Gondry’s script. He seems to be trying for the sort of neighborhood group portrait Spike Lee used to do so well, but his characters lack consistency. In some scenes, Jerry and Mike are such dim bulbs they appear to be re-enacting Dumb and Dumber without even trying; in others, they’re incongruously self-aware. As for the store’s customers, Gondry needs to sell us on the notion that they’d quickly fall in love with the two men’s DIY efforts, but he doesn’t bother. We’re asked to take this on faith.
In real life, these wild movie parodies seem like they might find their biggest fan base on YouTube. But that’s a possibility Gondry doesn’t want to confront: His movie is resolutely free of digital media. When the feds arrive to collar the pair for copyright infringement, Black responds to a mention of pirated DVDs as if he’s never heard of the Internet.
But the Internet, ironically, is where you can find the mini-movies that are the best part of this one. By the end, Gondry’s nostalgia for the golden age of VHS seems touching but misplaced. Why not mourn the decline of a format where movies actually look good, i.e., the big screen?