When two videostore workers in Be Kind Rewind accidentally erase their aging stock of VSH tapes and hatch a scheme to videotape homemade, shorter versions of Hollywood feature films, writer/director Michel Gondry lays his cards on the table. The creations of the film's two affable protagonists, Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), are filled to the brim with Gondry's unique brand of handmade, craft-like creative shortcuts and problem solving, ways to make elaborate on-screen effects using clever, lo-fi substitutions that so thrillingly succeed as both workaround versions of normally far slicker and more expensive effects, as well as registering a kind of meta-pleasure, the audience's recognition of Gondry's cute material solutions and ingenuity. Yet, in Mike and Jerry's versions of Ghostbusters or Rush Hour 2 these ingenious workarounds are all we see. Indeed, these amateur filmmakers' priority is that of Gondry himself, to create a hand crafted world that translates what we are used to seeing into something personal and herky-jerky and bearing obvious traces of its own construction. This may be a fine aesthetic philosophy for music videos, but when your films are plot and character driven, the subservience of their development to an emphasis on effects is problematic, ironically working like an indie-arty equivalent of the way the Star Wars prequels and their brethren extinguish the human and hobble the story for the sake of showiness.
This was most evident in the director's last film, The Science of Sleep, which dived directly into the mind of a Gondry-like surrogate whose imaginative creativity spiraled out of control, much to the detriment of the film's twee precociousness and over-abundant whimsy. Notably, this tendency was used in Gondry's best film to its advantage, as Charlie Kaufman's script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so perfectly welded mental imagination to its characters discombobulated sense of love and memory. In Be Kind Rewind, Gondry is thankfully more sedate and reigned in than The Science of Sleep, but the film does confirm that when the director is his own scriptwriter his priorities unfortunately lie away from rendering his characters and their stories as thoughtfully as his effects.
While the film does have a sweetness to its goofball comedy that is often quite warm, the "heart" that a perfectly cast Mia Farrow laments is missing from most movies is here missing as well. You can't get heart from nothing, and we see so little interaction between Jerry, Mike, his impoverished, old-school boss (Danny Glover) and the filmmakers' helper/actress Alma (Melonie Diaz) beyond bantering arguments and filmmaking montages that there is very little sense of how characters feel for one another. In fact, only a very subtle suggestion of a past relationship long lost between Glover and Farrow gets at the real emotional sensibility in the film, and emerges as the film's most moving element. But the others are lost in a field of bare suggestions, Jerry turning into an ego-driven actor as a local New Jersey celebrity, Mike and Alma's feelings for one another, and Danny Glover and Mos Def's father/son relationship. These are simply the flimsy basis for the film's desire, first and foremost, to have an excuse to make all these handcrafted pastiches (the longest being a documentary/dramatic retelling of the life of Fats Waller is extremely elaborate and inspired), and second of all to posit a kind of collaborative, low budget communal filmmaking utopia where magic is worked with the barest means but the greatest passion.
But the the emotional investment Mike and his team put into the Fats Waller film, both as a way of proving themselves to encroaching powers (copywrite cops and city zoning commission planning on pulling down their videostore) and in bringing to life a story personally important to the filmmakers, is absent from Be Kind Rewind itself. With a good deal of unknowing irony the film devotes itself to a creative kind of cinema, but one neglecting the human investment behind the creativity, what the special effects are being used for outside of their own marvelousness.