Thursday, February 28, 2008

Review - Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry's new film Be Kind Rewind sums up all of this filmmaker's brilliance and limitations in one frustrating package. The picture's subject matter offers ample opportunity for the director to play with his determinedly lo-fi aesthetic, but it also exposes his weaknesses as a storyteller, and his inability to mould his light-headed adventures into a coherent whole. Be Kind Rewind is the name of a dilapidated video store – yes, that's right, a video store – in Passaic, New Jersey whose sole claim to fame is that it may have been the birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. That's what Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) tells people anyway, and he has instilled a love of Waller's music in his both live-in employee Mike (Mos Def, appealingly low-key as ever) and Mike's reckless best friend Jerry (Jack Black, not quite so low-key), but the store is under threat, with town planners hoping to renovate the area. If Mr Fletcher can't raise $60,000 before the end of the month then his store will face closure, so the last thing he needs is a magnetised Jerry (don't ask) erasing every VHS in his shop.

Mike and Jerry's decision to reshoot the missing films themselves allows Gondry to display all of the childlike creativity that has characterised his career as a director of music videos and feature films. Gondry is a cinematic alchemist who can spin gold from the most rudimentary materials, and the first hour of Be Kind Rewind sees him at his best. There's a fantastic sight gag early on involving camouflage suits which, like the best of Gondry's work, is so simple and yet so ingenious; and as Mike and Jerry race around town haphazardly shooting scenes from Ghostbusters (the film requested by their most loyal customer, a spaced-out Mia Farrow), their enthusiasm and commitment to the cause seems to exemplify the director's belief in what cinema should be. In this age of slick, flawless visual effects, Gondry's adherence to trickery based in clever camerawork and editing is refreshing and often breathtaking – last year's The Science of Sleep had some gorgeous moments – so the tale of two nobodies trying to recreate blockbuster movies on a tiny scale is right up his street. I loved the way Mike and Jerry overcame the problem of filming a daytime scene at night, or the use of pizzas as pools of blood under a body, or their method for staging a birth scene; at times such as these, Be Kind Rewind simply dazzles with its boundless creative energy.

Those of us watching Be Kind Rewind aren't the only ones dazzled by the pair's efforts, though, and soon the whole community is queuing up outside the door demanding "Sweded" versions of their favourite films. They hire a pretty local girl (Melonie Diaz, adorable) to help with kissing scenes, and when their customers prove willing to pay for these more personal versions of mainstream hits, their productions gradually grow more ambitious. In a great tracking shot, Gondry follows the actors from one remake to another – When We Were Kings, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Men in Black, King Kong – and the mind boggles at some of the titles that run down the sides of the screen during this sequence (I'm not sure I want to imagine a "Sweded" version of Last Tango in Paris or Gummo). This is all great stuff – it's fresh, funny and gleefully silly – but in Be Kind Rewind's second half, Gondry allows the narrative to run away from him.

The shadow of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind continues to hang over Michel Gondry's career. That wonderful 2004 film allied Gondry's idiosyncratic direction to a heartfelt, thrillingly inventive screenplay from Charlie Kaufman, and Kaufman's emotionally resonant script seemed to have an anchoring effect on the director. Such weight wasn't present in Gondry's flimsy follow-up The Science of Sleep, and Be Kind Rewind – for all of its pleasing traits – doesn't have enough going on to fill out its running time, with the pacing becoming increasingly poor as the film progresses uncertainly. Sigourney Weaver turns up as a lawyer charged with enforcing copyright laws, and then the film focuses on Mike and Jerry's attempt to film a Fats Waller tribute documentary, although "focuses" is perhaps too strong a word to use in relation to this picture's plotting, with threads being picked up and dropped in a random fashion. While that might just be a simple by-product of the anarchic, freewheeling style Gondry's going for, it leaves the film feeling horribly disjointed, and its grip on my attention had almost evaporated by the close.
Be Kind Rewind is a film full of heart; in fact, it seems to have nothing but heart, and if you can fully engage with it on that gut level – overlooking its myriad problems – then you'll probably have fun with it. The climax pulls together elements from Cinema Paradiso, It's a Wonderful Life, and Gondry's own documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party; it's a celebration of community spirit and the unifying power of cinema, but it comes off with no impact because Gondry hasn't properly set down the groundwork for this finale, and the closing scenes also feel oddly truncated. Both Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep seem to suggest that Gondry is at his best when bringing his unique aesthetic to bear on other writers' material; and while scripts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are pretty hard to come by, one hopes Gondry does find a screenplay capable of keep his imagination grounded in reality, and imposing some discipline on his work. Michel Gondry is one of the most naturally brilliant directors in cinema, but all of his whimsy and magic counts for nothing if he can't tell a story in a satisfying way.