In Michel Gondry’s estimation, we’re defined by our dreams, our art and our histories, a conviction the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director once again expresses with whimsical, lyrical inventiveness in Be Kind Rewind, the goofy yet touching tale of two friends who unite a neighborhood through film. Mike (Mos Def) lives above, and works at, Be Kind Rewind, a video store/thrift shop in Passaic, New Jersey owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) and frequented by best bud Jerry (Jack Black), a spaz who lives in an RV parked in a junkyard next to the local power plant. In an opening that plays like something out of an ‘80s supernatural comedy, Jerry’s paranoia about the harmful effects of the plant on his health—this despite his use of colanders and tin foil as protective head and body gear—leads him to attempt sabotage. When things go awry, he winds up with a body that’s completely magnetized, which in turn causes him to inadvertently erase all the VHS tapes at Be Kind Rewind. Left in charge of the store by Fletcher, who’s off looking for a way to save the establishment from being razed for building code violations (and gentrification), Mike concocts a plan: he and Jerry will remake the store’s blockbusters themselves, and pass their versions off as the real deal.
These hilarious homemade movies—of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and Robocop, among many more—quickly become a neighborhood hit, even garnering a nickname when Jerry, in order to justify the long wait times and high rental costs of these unique products to customers, says they’re “Sweded” (as in, from Sweden). More to the point, Jerry and Mike’s works are the epitome of Gondry’s trademark DIY concoctions and, specifically, his familiar recreations of environments and objects with everyday materials. Be Kind Rewind mines the production of these amateurish filmic replicas for consistent laughs, either by offering up inside jokes for those familiar with the works (such as a hilarious whispering-librarian gag during the Ghostbusters shoot), or just by having its protagonists awkwardly embody physically and/or racially incongruous roles, as when the portly Jerry stands in for Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2 (crude accent and squinty eyes to boot) and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. There’s a zaniness to these sequences that’s infectious, in part because Gondry’s direction is attuned to Mike and Jerry’s verve and ingenuity, never more so than with a gleeful extended junkyard tracking shot from one cleverly crude movie set (including a low-budget rotating space station for 2001: A Space Odyssey) to another.
With Def as his more levelheaded foil, Black proves to be the burning sun in this cheery, zany scenario. Reigning in his penchant for bursting into song-and-dance shenanigans but not his rapid-fire nonsensicality or his ability to deliver, without warning, surprising tenderness, Black feels at once outrageously fictional and a natural component of the film’s run-down milieu. He’s the engine that powers the plot forward, radiating rambunctious wildness that’s kept just in check by Def’s more measured, soulful, slyly funny presence. And ultimately, Black’s manic, upbeat, effusive liveliness is not dissimilar to that exhibited by Gondry, whose mise-en-scène—aided by Ellen Kuras’s lovely lens flare-streaked compositions and amusingly scraggly handheld camerawork for Mike and Jerry’s films—exudes a gung-ho exhilaration over the magic, and contagiousness, of artistic invention. That energy creeps into most corners of Be Kind Rewind, from its amusing self-consciousness (a Sigourney Weaver cameo, the sight of the screen fluctuating when magnetized Jerry walks too close to Kuras’s camera) to its spirited and/or heartfelt performances from Melonie Diaz as Mike and Jerry’s partner-in-crime Alma, Glover as the duo’s surrogate paternal figure, and Mia Farrow as Fletcher’s friend.
The sight of Mike and Jerry brainstorming ideas with members of the community depicts, with equal parts humor and heart, creativity as a fundamentally collaborative process, and one done by iconoclasts on their own terms, away from the stultifying influence of the corporate mainstream, here embodied by video rental chains and the litigious, copyright-obsessed studios. In a certain sense, Be Kind Rewind (distributed by Time Warner’s New Line division) is a rebuke to the status quo from within the system. Gondry, though, spends less time biting the hand that feeds than championing the type of authentic indie filmmaking being made in backyards across the world, and being uploaded to sites like YouTube on a daily basis. Even more than that, the writer-director’s latest is a magnificent love letter to the cinema itself, a medium which Gondry contends—via the joyous showing of Mike and Jerry’s wholly false biopic of jazz legend Fatts Waller, made with Alma and the many around-the-block friends who come to support their makeshift enterprise—is a vehicle for engaging with one’s self, the world and the past, as well as a phony construct, a lie, that nonetheless has profound meaning and worth when embraced by many.