Be Kind Rewind
Film review by: Witney Seibold
One time – a long, long time ago – one could watch motion pictures in their homes using primitive devices called VCRs. “VCR” stand for Video Cassette Recorder. They were like the current-day Tivo device, but required special plastic cartridges full of spooled magnetic tape. Special local shops and rental stores once populated almost every corner of every city in America, offering rentals of these cassettes to patrons. You could rent any movie you liked, and, dependingon the store, were offered a wide variety of obscure movies you would not have though of otherwise. In the early ‘00s, the widely used DVD technology exploded, and the VHS video rental stores that didn’t close down made the shift to DVD technology. Today, one can rent any DVD they like from their local rental shops. Well, those who aren’t using the reclusive, antisocial, heretical mail-order services like Netflix, anyway.
Many people – and I count myself among them – have a strong affinity for video stores. I garnered most of my film education freely renting films from my local video store (in my case, 20/20 Video on Wilshire and 12th street in Santa Monica. It’s now a hairdresser). They are similar to record shops. They are often staffed y people who are intensely knowledgable about cinema, have strong opinions, and can recommend entire new worlds to the casual observer. There is a local, home-style-cookin’ feeling to local video and record stores. A DIY-feeling that gives you a sense of awe and discovery. Writer/director Michel Gondry shares this awe. It’s the strongest thing about his most recent film “Be Kind Rewind.”
The mildly dimwitted Mike (Mos Def) is the sole employee at Be Kind Rewind, the only remaining VHS rental store in a small New Jersey town. Be Kind Rewind is under threat of being torn down, and the beleaguered owner Elroy (Danny Glover), claiming that the building was the birthplace of Fats Waller, must go on sabbatical to scope out the video store competition, and try to beef up sales.
While Elroy is gone, Mike’s even more dimwitted friend Jerry (Jack Black) wanders into the store after a trip to the local power plant, and accidentally erases all the store’s inventory with his newly-magnetized body. Too bad, as the store’s only regular customer Miss Falewicz (a game Mia Farrow), has called up, intent on renting “Ghostbusters.” What’s Mike to do? Well, why not whip out a camera and quickly refilm “Ghostbusters” with Jerry playing half the parts? Miss Falewicz has never seen it. Surely she won’t know the difference.
Locals soon discover what Mike and Jerry did to “Ghostbusters,” and start demanding other films as well. “Rush Hour 2” is next. Followed by “RoboCop,” “The Lion King,” “Men in Black,” and many, many others. Mike and Jerry occasionally need real females in their homemade remakes, and enlist the help of the not-at-all dimwitted actress Alma (Melonie Diaz). She nicknamed the remaking process “Sweding.” Soon, Be Kind Rewind has made thousands of dollars Sweding films for the whole neighborhood.
Gondry has made a very sweet, and very honest film about the charm and the power of old-fashioned handmade filmmaking, local color, and the strength of community and community businesses. While he’s not from the New Jersey town where “Be Kind Rewind” takes place, he clearly loves the warmth of local life over the cold efficiency of the mass-produced. It’s almost an irony that “Be Kind Rewind” is available on DVD at all.
As a film, and as a narrative, “Be Kind Rewind” is kind of shabby. The pacing is kind of strange, and a third-act shift in plot feels rushed. Also, Def and Black are a bit too idiotic to be believable or lovable. Gondry’s elegiac feeling is in tact, but the film would have largely benefitted from an infusion of genuine down-home smarts; The Sweded films are entertaining and innovative, but it’s hard to believe that dimwits like Mike and Jerry could have invented them. Diaz is the film’s strongest saving grace, as she is the most realistic character.
So “Be Kind Rewind” is sweet and simple, and is pleased to be merely entertaining rather than the least bit powerful. The kind of film that many would describe as “I dunno, it’s kinda cute.” I do share the film’s grief in the passing of local businesses and of local video stores, but “Be Kind Rewind” is hardly a thesis on the subject.