While nostalgia has creeped into almost all of Michel Gondry’s films, Be Kind, Rewind is clearly the most wistful. Gondry’s previous fables (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature, The Science of Sleep) always had a darker edge that reminded us of the all-consuming nature of escape. Whether it’s erasing their memories or allowing their dream-life to collide with reality, Gondry’s protagonists are tragic because they never wind up with as much control as they begin with. In Be Kind, Gondry revels in the notion of the past’s irreproachable status, justifying nostalgia for VHS tapes and older movies by emphasizing their deep-seated emotional appeal. Whether it’s Rush Hour 2, Ghostbusters or Driving Miss Daisy, movies were better before not because they still are by today’s standards but rather because we prefer to remember them that way.
Gondry’s point couldn’t be any more relevant considering Be Kind is being released just after Blu-Ray’s defeat of HD-DVD seems to have confirmed its status as the next big thing. Whether or not that effectively translates into a feature-length film without spreading its concept too thin is another matter entirely. Warm memories are more than enough to warrant an unabashed prejudice but the sentiment clearly isn’t enough to carry a 101-minute story that’s proud to be slumming it. After all, we’re not in Paris or New York this time but Passaic, the proud home of music great Fats Waller.
Gondry lovingly serves up a set-up whose imperfections and indulgences are their pride and their weakness. It’s essentially a buddy movie with a bleeding ‘80s heart that belongs in the company of the comedies of Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis and Hugh Wilson. When Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) takes a break from Be Kind Rewind Video Store, it’s up to Mike (Mos Def) to service the customers and to make sure that Jerry (Jack Black) doesn’t wreck the store, which he promptly does. Jerry de-magnetizes all of the VHS tapes in Be Kind, forcing the pair to come up with a quick fix when mild-mannered but insistent Miss Falewicz (a doddering and lifeless Mia Farrow) tries to take out Ghostbusters. In a hare-brained scheme that’s true to Gondry’s do-it-yourself aesthetic, they decide to film their own version, a concept that rapidly takes off and creates a rising demand for the “sweded” films.
Gondry’s plot pulls no punches, from Fletcher’s return, to his acceptance of the enterprise to the evil, uncaring studio representatives’ (Sigourney Weaver and Paul Dinello) inevitable challenge. It’s not because Gondry doesn’t care enough to create a less obvious plot but rather because he’s too in love with its reliable flaws to care. The creativity and energy within the various clips from “sweded” productions are terrific and the story is nothing if not an entertaining and decidedly safe vehicle for the hilarious spoofs. They’re labors of love that are pretty paltry by most standards but are more than content to stand in the shadow of contemporary films because they’re, as Miss Falewicz says, “movies with heart.”
Recycling the films makes them new and exciting again for both the filmmakers and the audience but in Be Kind, the difference between the two is non-existent. The carefree spirit of creation has effectively cancelled out the consequences of Jerry and Mike’s actions because they have no one really holding them down to the ground except themselves. There’s no girlfriends here—much to the pair’s disappointment—nor any family except Mr. Fletcher, leaving them free to create as they please with no one to oppose them except the ruthless moneymaking studio machines (incidentally, anyone with a sharp eye will note that the “sweded” titles are from New Line Cinema and their parent company, Warner Brothers’ catalogue). There’s no conflict in Be Kind that can’t be shrugged off in the warm glow of such unrepentant daydreaming and hence there’s nothing substantial enough to remember except the ceaseless stream of belly laughs that Black and Mos Def serve up.
Gondry’s biggest credit is that his plea for viewer participation doesn’t fall on deaf ears, eliciting rosy memories of trawling my local Schlockbuster and the library across the street from my childhood home if only for a moment. A flood of images of tangled tape, clunky cassettes and automatic rewinders came back to me and for a moment I forgot that Danny Glover hasn’t been in anything good and mainstream in a long, long time. Getting swept up in the warmth of the past we choose to remember is more than enough time to appreciate the film the first time around, but coming back to revisit Be Kind probably won’t keep them toasty for very long.