Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Aimlessness Kills the Video Stars: Be Kind Rewind

In Be Kind Rewind, Jack Black and Mos Def play buddies who, through some extreme plot contrivances, are forced to shoot on-the-fly reenactments of popular movies to replace an entire stock of damaged merchandise at what must be the last VHS-only rental store in the country. The result is a collection of homemade homages to Hollywood classics and blockbusters that are short on frills but high on thrills, thin on polish but thick with sincerity, empty of expertise but exploding with heart. These roughhewn creations, relying on an abundance of spirit to bridge the gap created by obvious technical shortcomings, remind that the best filmmaking craft is often the result of ingenious perseverance in the face of adversity (think: Spielberg and the malfunctioning mechanical shark from Jaws). But, alas, Be Kind Rewind isn’t as enchanting as the mini-films it encompasses, because writer/director Michel Gondry lacks the instincts of his guerilla filmmaking characters.

The chief problem with Gondry’s film is its plot, and the problem with the plot is that there’s too damn much of it. At its best, Be Kind Rewind thrives on the resourcefulness of Jerry (Black) and Mike (Def) putting big-budget effort into their Kindergarten-quality pictures, but it takes at least 30 minutes until we get a glimpse of that, which is about 29 minutes too long. Rather than let us revel in his film’s feature presentation, Gondry makes us suffer through what amounts to tedious pre-show entertainment: a historical short on legendary pianist Fats Waller, a silly episode of sabotage at a power station and a lazy reach into the barrel of hackneyed plot designs that sees “Be Kind Rewind” video store owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) needing to swiftly reinvigorate his business or else lose it to the wrecking ball. You could read a Syd Field book on screenwriting in less time than it takes Gondry to set up his film’s key conflict (a store full of erased VHS tapes), and yet this overflowing pot of unnecessary plot devices will later see the addition of some awkward and never developed sexual tension between Mike and his moviemaking accomplice Alma (Melonie Diaz), which exists merely to satisfy the pesky man-plus-woman equation.

It’s a pity Be Kind Rewind wanders so far from the trail, because when Gondry gets down to the essence of his film – a humorous and sweetly nostalgic reflection on movies and what they mean to us – there’s joy to be had. It starts with Jerry and Mike grabbing a camcorder circa the Bog Saget era of America’s Funniest Home Videos and shooting their rendition of Ghostbusters (Mike to Jerry: “I’m Venkman. You’re everybody else.”). The affable losers wrap themselves in foil to approximate ghost-busting attire, combine tinsel and fishing rods to create the effect of the specter-lassoing proton beams and construct a miniature Manhattan skyline out of cardboard for the climactic encounter with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But all this passes too quickly. Subsequent montages will show productions of Rush Hour 2, RoboCop, Boyz N The Hood and a handful of other instantly-recognizable flicks. And these additional wacky reenactments are pleasurable but even shorter than the first.

It’s as if Gondry doesn’t want to ruin the effect of his screenplay’s only delectable concept by offering it up in bulk. Though if that’s the case, Be Kind Rewind was doomed from the start, because what we’re left with is too much attention paid to a tired plot scenario in which a town rallies around a mom-and-pop operation to save it from being demolished by soulless corporate bigwigs (starring Sigourney Weaver as the lead bitch) and not enough of the very thing that makes it unique. Black and Def are competent leads, yet with the exception of a cutely clumsy burglary attempt they shine only in the rare but precious instances when Jerry and Mike are allowed to create.

And even then Gondry misses some golden opportunities. Be Kind Rewind would have been better off having fun with Black’s general resemblance to Orson Welles, as seen in King Kong, and re-envisioning Citizen Kane. In doing so, Gondry would have played to the strength of his biggest star while tipping his hat to a genuine classic. But even more significant, Gondry would have underlined his movie’s cinematic morals by paying tribute to a film that’s held in higher regard today than upon its 1941 release precisely because of a deep respect for Welles’ ability to prevent limited resources from putting a lid on his vision. A filmmaker thinking outside the box led to Citizen Kane’s clever employment of stock footage, its often seamless marriage of brick-and-mortar sets with matte drawings and its brilliant utilization of sets and models that pulled apart at the center to allow for otherwise impossible camera movements that David Fincher would be riffing on almost 60 years later in Panic Room (to name one).

Coincidentally, I saw Be Kind Rewind not long after catching the gritty foreign film 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. In terms of theme and execution (not to mention quality), the pictures could hardly be farther apart. And yet if Be Kind Rewind, through its characters, demonstrates how a filmmaker’s passion can make up for other deficiencies, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, through the approach of director Cristian Mungiu, underlines the significance of story. Mungiu’s minimalist cinematography and use of long, unbroken takes supplies a piercing reality and unremitting intensity to his picture by design. And yet these same fixed camera angles – more inert than Mia Farrow’s overly Botoxed face in Be Kind Rewind – also demonstrate that when the story enthralls a filmmaker need only set up the scene and get out of the way. Gondry’s film has levity and movement, and it wraps up with a charming scene right out of Cinema Paradiso that should warm the cockles of even the most cynical movie fan’s heart. But Be Kind Rewind rarely offers anything that’s truly worthy of the camera’s attention, or ours.


Fox said...

Good review!

I come out on the other side, though, b/c I thought the film was successful in it's display of movie love (a la the upcoming *Son of Rambow*). I also found Gondry's staging of the remakes to be more visually exciting than most of what I saw last year.

But you make some interesting points. I especially like your thoughts on Jack Black, King Kong, and Citizen Kane.

Good stuff!

Emily said...

Hey Jason! So happy you've gone to blog format. Wish I had more time to add my 2 cents here but I would like to echo Fox's point about "movie love" by saying that I think it's just a movie about movies. The jumbled plot is just a big bouliabaise of every cliche plot element. It starts at the end, just the way that Mos Def argues for starting the Fats Waller movie they ultimately make. They show us how they make all the effects for their re-makes...

This sort of "meta" orientation makes the movie seem slightly smarter and more interesting to me than I originally thought, but not any more entertaining.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox & Emily: I loved the movie-love aspect of "Be Kind Rewind." I just wish there had been more of it.

That said, I've seen one trailer for "Son of Rambow," and I'm pumped. Trailers can be misleading, but it looks like that film goes all the way in its movie-love. We'll see.