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Friday, Sept. 26, 2008
'Be Kind Rewind'
It doesn't get cuter than low-rent Gondry
By KAORI SHOJI
How much cute can a straight man generate (and we're not talking about his looks here) without getting thwacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper? If the man happens to be French filmmaker Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Science of Sleep") the answer is: TONS. During his career the guy has generated more cute than the Christmas sale at Kiddyland and, now in his mid-40s, Gondry continues to make highly professional films that have the look and ambience of a construction paper and shoe-box diorama made by an inspired 5th-grader in summer camp. An auteur who isn't, a master but not, Gondry occupies a special, one-person niche in the world of filmmaking — a mach 3 ace pilot who only consents to fly rickety, aluminum planes from the 1950s or something. Blinking shyly, he emerges from the cockpit with rumpled hair and quite possibly wearing pajamas patterned with teddy bears.
Gondry's latest is "Be Kind Rewind," whose cute/whimsy factor tears through the roof with such force that the viewer (well, me anyway) feels something close to a gravity-defying ascension. Strange, because there's nothing to indicate this is a quality film: It looks as though Gondry dipped into his piggy bank for the production design, hired a high-school buddy to play the main character and used a boy-scout flashlight in lieu of proper lights. In fact, it's just Gondry demonstrating his skill at spending lots of money to achieve that low-rent, hugger-mugger, discount atmosphere, which in this film he hones to an art form. The set, comprised of a lot of cooking foil and cardboard, required months of planning by a trusted and experienced crew. The script, penned by Gondry himself, is a carefully concocted blend of goofy naivete and wry cynicism. The cast features such Hollywood heavyweights as Jack Black and Danny Glover, with Mia Farrow putting in an appearance. It's all there, but the audience isn't meant to see any of it.
The backdrop is a real-life place called Passaic New Jersey, a gray, industrial wedge off the East Coast, and the film is set mostly inside the confines of a rental-video shop called Be Kind Rewind. Doubling as a drab thrift store and run by the aging Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who wouldn't know high-tech if it handcuffed him, the shop has never seen the likes of DVDs, and the ancient building itself has just been condemned. Resigned to his fate, Mr. Fletcher is about to fold the business, though loyal customers such as the slightly dotty Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) continue to frequent the shop and his young, sweet protege, Mike (Mos Def), likes working the counter. Mike's pal Jerry (Jack Black) hangs around too, but that's because he has nothing better to do — the guy lives in a trailer in the corner of a junkyard and seems to emerge solely to annoy the neighborhood. But when Jerry accidentally erases all the contents of the videos after an electrical accident at the local power plant, a desperate Mike gets the bright idea of "remaking" the movies by themselves, and renting them out. "Ghostbusters" is put together using Christmas tinsel ("It's ectoplasma!") and setting fire to a doll made of marshmallows. For "Rush Hour," Jerry scotch-tapes the corners of his eyes to make himself out as Jackie Chan. "Driving Miss Daisy" gets problematic because Mike refuses to take orders from a condescending Jessica-Tandy-playing Jerry. And on it goes. They enlist the help of Alma (Melonie Diaz), who works at the dry cleaners across the street and has dramatic aspirations ("I played the fridge in my high-school play!"), and pretty soon, people are lining up around the block to get the remade — or, as in Mike and Jerry lingo, "sweded" — versions of their favorite movies.
In case you're wondering, not a single kiss interrupts the nonstop sweding going on inside the video shop and there's no love interest apart from a brief friendship that blossoms between Mr. Fletcher and Miss Falewicz. Instead, we get to see such juvenile prankster stuff as Jerry swallowing tap water from a plastic bucket, and then peeing with abandon right in the gutter (to get the electricity out of his system); or Mike wielding the camera at a girl frantically screaming, after a dollop of ketchup had been unceremoniously dumped on her head (for the sweding of "Carrie"). It's hard to associate the whole thing with a highly respected, award-winning filmmaker; on the other hand, no one but Gondry could have flown such a strange contraption — a veritable toy in the sky — and guided it safely to the ground. "Be Kind Rewind" doesn't exactly nourish the soul or feed the brain, but it does offer tickets to a tinny, cheap-o Never Never Land, drawing out that inspired 5th-grader buried somewhere in all of us.
Jack Black is interviewed in The Japan Times on Oct. 9.