It’s times like this that I feel like a killjoy. Be Kind Rewind is a terribly sweet movie with a good heart, and my argument against it boils down to “Sweet isn’t good enough.” That sounds cold, even to me, but damn, it’s true, and truth be told, it makes me a little bit angry. Writer-director Michel Gondry squanders his story’s vast potential and his own visual ingenuity on treacle: it may be sweet, but it’s all empty calories, and it’s not nearly as rich as it could have been.
Gondry wastes all matter of time and energy on an elaborate setup, but here’s the essential gist of the premise: Mike (Mos Def) is looking after the failing video rental store of his mentor, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), when all the VHS tapes mysteriously go blank. His friend Jerry (Jack Black) convinces him to make their own abbreviated, low-tech versions of the movies, and their New Jersey neighbors unexpectedly become big fans of the homespun productions.
Mike, Jerry, and their eventual collaborator Alma (Melonie Diaz) recreate everything from Robocop to Driving Miss Daisy to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the montages that show how they do so are by far the most charming—and effective—passages of Be Kind. Their gleeful creativity reflects the best kind of amateurism: the desire to do something not for money, not even for fame, but for love, the sheer joy of doing it.
I believe in the beauty (though not the inherent superiority) of that kind of amateurism, and I believe that “ownership” of stories is not so simple as a corporation’s copyright. I was excited to see what Gondry would do with those themes, but to my disappointment he does very little. Be Kind lives in its own dreamy world, hinting at questions of copyright and gentrification and revisionist history, only to float carelessly away, leaving the threads hanging. What’s more, Gondry undermines the few points he does kinda sorta make. When Mike (who is black) balks at recreating the racially problematic Driving Miss Daisy, Be Kind seems to be broaching something interesting, but the conversation stalls. Later we glimpse the homemade Miss Daisy in a montage as a straight remake. What happened?
I also cringe at Gondry’s romanticization of the old-fashioned for its own sake. Be Kind has a weird love of VHS, especially as opposed to the new-fangled DVD (which is becoming obsolete itself, but never mind), but why VHS? Isn’t VHS supposed to have been inferior to its defeated competitor, Betamax? Is there any real reason to love VHS other than a heedless affection for all things out-of-date? Using VHS, of all things, as a symbol for the purity of amateurism (or whatever—Be Kind Rewind is too free-floating to attach too much meaning to anything) just seems reactionary and silly and stupid: as one writer I read pointed out, if anything opened up filmmaking to the amateur, it wasn’t VHS but the digital format, with its relatively cheap film-less cameras, its easily edited recorded material, and its simple transfer to, yes, DVD.
I realize I’m overthinking things here: At one point, I was considering the idea that the gentrification of Mr. Fletcher’s neighborhood is a metaphor for the way corporate movie and TV studios have overwhelmed the traditional storytelling and myth-making abilities of ordinary people (seriously, this is how my mind works), but in the end, I had to admit that the metaphor existed only in my feverishly overanalytical mind. I was fooled by Gondry’s earlier film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my all-time favorites, into expecting something similarly provocative and beautiful in Be Kind. Of course, acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote Eternal Sunshine, but I had assumed that Gondry had chosen to work on that script in part because he responded to the ambitious, gorgeous, stimulating, heartfelt writing, but I’m beginning to suspect that Gondry just isn’t interested in the intellectual questions that move me.
And that’s fine, truly. If Gondry had given me a cheerfully escapist little riff with Mos Def and Jack Black hamming their way through no-budget remakes of big-budget fare, I would have gotten a kick out of that. I loved the little taste of Mike, Jerry, and Alma’s productions. But Gondry doesn’t even give us much of that. Be Kind is lackluster as both brain-food and brain-candy. It succeeds only at being … sweet, a run-of-the-mill little comedy about scruffy underdogs coming together to put on one last big show. That’s sweet, I guess, but more than sweet, it’s boring.