Michel Gondry likes to play with audience expectations. Not through his storytelling (which could use work) but with visual outrageousness. Since directing the high-profile and brilliantly surreal Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (penned by screenwriting wunderkind Charlie Kaufman), Gondry has authored his own work — and, while the budgets and production values shrank, his visual imagination grew. His work including The Science of Sleep, his various music video projects (the White Stripes, Beck) and Dave Chappelle's Block Party (which he directed) has a handmade sensibility that's clever, chaotic and constantly surprises.
Gondry's current thesis is that creativity trumps budget any day of the week. Much as children build entire worlds of crayon marks and household junk, the filmmaker creates fantastical sets using lots and lots of cardboard. It's the kind of work diehard DIYers and readers of MAKE Magazine would adore. And Gondry's scruffy and inventive Be Kind Rewind is a cinematic call to make your own entertainment.
Mike (Mos Def) is the hard-working cashier of a dispossessed video rental shop in Passaic, N.J. The neighborhood's clearly working-class and the dingy videotape-only business is on its last legs. Entrusted with watching the store while his boss (Danny Glover) leaves town, Mike struggles to keep his abrasive and paranoid friend Jerry (Jack Black) from driving away the store's few remaining customers. Unfortunately, Jerry becomes magnetized after attempting to sabotage the local power plant and accidentally erases every tape in the shop.
Desperate to keep the business going, the two concoct a plan to re-enact popular films with an old video camera — a process they hilariously call "Sweding." Soon, their custom-made movies are all the rage, pulling in unlikely fans (and cast members) from the surrounding neighborhood. That is, until Hollywood copyright lawyers come calling.
Gondry's "let's save the shop" plotline is threadbare, but the actors do their best to keep up with his nutty ingenuity and the results are delightful, if not particularly funny. Def is sweetly convincing as the beleaguered Mike, and Black is appropriately manic (for a change) as the egotistical and frenetic Jerry. Newcomer Melonie Diaz charms as a dry cleaner employee turned leading lady-producer, while such old timers as Glover and Mia Farrow gamely act alongside nonprofessional locals.
The real attraction here is Gondry's cheeky lo-fi filmmaking. From Ghostbusters to Rush Hour to 2001: A Space Odyssey to a brilliantly skewered Driving Miss Daisy, one giddy send-up after another summons laughs and delights the eyes.
The highlight is an amazingly complex montage of films that's as silly as it is breathlessly creative. Gondry may not offer surprises as to where his story's headed, but you never quite know what he'll throw at the screen next. Those willing to play along will have the most fun.
Sure, the idea of a downtrodden community coming together through cinema is hokey as hell, but Be Kind Rewind offers a timely and seldom-spoken message: Audiences need to get off their collective asses and generate art and community of their own. The big-budget perfection of TV and studio productions has turned entertainment into a profoundly slackjawed experience. Gondry proposes that there is far more joy to be found in creating your own work ... no matter how much cardboard it takes.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.