It’s a quick trip from whimsy to silliness in “Be Kind Rewind,” a notably ephemeral work by Michel Gondry, whose flights of fancy can’t overcome the egregious illogic of the premise. A few geeks and VHS cultists may cotton to the spectacle of two videostore clerks compensating for the accidental erasure of commercial tapes by shooting their own versions of “Ghostbusters,” “Rush Hour 2” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” but inspiration is as meager as the antics of Jack Black and Mos Def are lame. Fact that, after its fleeting theatrical runs, this New Line release will rapidly move to its natural home on DVD — but emphatically not on VHS — ironically underscores the film’s screwy cultural and technological disjunctures.
After partnering with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on his first two features, “Human Nature” and the borderline sublime “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which had to do with erasure of a slightly different kind), Gondry penned his own scripts for “The Science of Sleep” and this one. Left to his own devices without a strong collaborative scribe, Gondry has a tendency toward frivolous quirks and contrived farce that is not encouraging.
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One can feel unkindly toward “Be Kind Rewind” on either a literal-minded or an impressionistic basis. Taken at all realistically, the yarn’s very foundations are preposterously corny.
Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) maintains a video-only rental shop in run-down Passaic, N.J., in a building he claims was once home to jazz great Fats Waller. With the place condemned for redevelopment, vacation-bound Fletcher leaves the store in the hands of clerk Mike (Def), hoping he can revive business and keep the dingy place open.
The neighborhood wild card is Jerry (Black), an unshushable misfit who becomes electrified and magnetized by the local power plant and, in short order, begins unwittingly erasing the store’s videos. Rather than finding substitute copies or taping them off DVDs from the big competitor down the street, the buddies procure a large video camera and shoot their own highly abbreviated versions and pass these on to customers, at least one of whom, lonely sparrow Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), doesn’t know the difference.
Gondry places the action emphatically in the present, when the mere existence of a vid-only store (unlike, for instance, a vinyl LP specialist) is a total anachronism; moving back the time frame 15 or 20 years would have removed a big credibility issue and sacrificed nothing except the absurdist dimension.
Worse, however, is that the videos (inexplicably called “sweded” films) Mike and Jerry make would seem to be totally terrible. Gondry concentrates on the vids’ frantic production — with makeshift costumes and special effects for the likes of “RoboCop,” “2001” and “King Kong,” hopeless stunts for “Rush Hour 2” and preschool-level docu and animation facsimiles for “When We Were Kings” and “The Lion King,” respectively — and shows almost nothing of the final results (which are, however, offered for viewer delectation online). Film’s Preston Sturges-like, young-doofuses-make-good resolution pivots on the proposition that the homemovies become popular with local residents, but there’s no internal evidence that this could be in any sense true. To the contrary.
But enough small-minded literalism; Gondry would seem to have intended “Be Kind Rewind” more as a generous, sweet-tempered comic fable. But the souffle never rises, for reasons that begin with the fact that the disheveled Jerry seems like a certifiable lunatic in immediate need of extended treatment. With the exception of a couple of nice pantomimic moves immediately after having been zapped, Black overdoes it awfully here in an overwhelmingly unamusing performance. No matter what he did, Def couldn’t help but seem low-key by contrast, but, in any event, his mild-mannered turn makes a soft impact. Sigourney Weaver turns up briefly as a corporate lawyer who confronts the boys with some legitimate copyright infringement issues.
Given the setup’s spoof potential, “Be Kind Rewind” might have cut it as a sophomoric student project or a goof-off comedy. But sticking it in something resembling the real world and pinning idealistic social significance to the desperate shenanigans of its screw-loose protags knocks it down for the count almost before it begins.
Production values are a few notches higher than those of the boys’ own productions, and notably so in the musical department, especially when Fats Waller chimes in.