Thursday, March 13, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Love them freckles, dahlin'!

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed this movie very much, and that there are some very big laughs in it. That's the good news. The bad news is that it is being advertised as a balls-out comedy madhouse full of Jack Black and Mos Def remaking movies youtube-style from beginning to end, and it is definitely not that movie. It's very sentimental, sometimes corny, sometimes off-kilter and it really doesn't care about our expectations.

The premise if you haven't heard it already is that Mike (Mos Def, Bamboozled) works at a video store in Passaic New Jersey run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover, Gone Fishin'). The neighborhood is so decrepit that they actually rent VHS tapes, and Mr. Fletcher entertains the neighborhood kids by telling them stories of when Fats Waller lived in the building, and try to give them some community pride. Mike's friend Jerry (Jack Black, Heat Vision and Jack) a somewhat crazed mechanic who runs a junkyard & repair shop near the power station. He wears a colander on his head to protect from the electricity nearby, and is obsessed with shutting it down. He becomes magnetized and erases all the tapes while Mr. Fletcher is away, and his favorite customer (Mia Farrow, Supergirl) comes by, the guys decide to remake Ghostbusters to keep her from calling the boss. The tape becomes so popular that the neighborhood starts demanding more movies, and the fun begins.
His caper to shut down the power plant leads to his brain becoming magnetized and some good slapstick. There's a scene with a ladder that had me rolling from how clever and cartoonish it was, and no one got hit with the ladder, as you might expect. The magnet gags are well executed and unexpected, and the first two acts are quite engaging. Irv Gooch plays Jerry's mechanic Wilson, and gets dragged into playing female parts. This is his first acting role, he normally does vehicle wrangling in movies, and I hope this leads to more small parts for him, because he was authentically funny and bizarre.
The community of Passaic is presented in a heartfelt way, and people are brash and eccentric in a uniquely Jersey fashion. One internet review I read said that everyone was a jerk, so that validates my statement. The meat of the film is the second act, when they hook up with Alma (Melonie Diaz, Itty Bitty Titty Committee) who works at the dry cleaners and plays the female roles after Wilson gets fed up. She's cute and more than a face, bringing needed energy to the second act, and someone for the leads, both funny in their own right, to riff off of.

With Alma in tow, they go after Rush Hour 2, Robocop, and the Lion King, and have a lot of fun doing it. There's a nice scene in a local deli where everyone talks about how much they love the Lion King. This movie isn't for the uber movie buffs, it's for everyone. Ask any adult without kids who watches Disney movies and they'll turn their nose up at the Lion King; it was derivative of Simba the White Lion, it used CG, Timon & Pumbaa were a thinly veiled Ren & Stimpy ripoff.... but it's still a fun movie.

Mos Def is really coming into his own. I liked him in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an underrated adaptation of an impossible book, and forgive him for taking that part in 16 Blocks. Jack Black is doing something he's done since Mr. Show, but it works here; he acts like a wacky junkman with a colander on his head should act. And I know enough backyard mechanics to know he's got the character down pat.
The third act is where most films fail, and I'm sad to say it is the weakest part of the film. Mr. Fletcher left the store because the town wants to condemn the building and he needs to make repairs, so he spies on other video stores to see why they're so successful. Like everyone in the film, he's imbued with a childlike innocence that lets director Michel Gondry make some amusing social commentary on video stores and the movie industry. The movies the crew makes, which get called "swedes" because they claim to have to import them from Sweden, raise the ire of the movie industry. And of course the community rallies together to help save the store... but we don't get a Hollywood ending. Gondry is kind enough to spare us that. In a movie dripping with childlike sentimentality and requiring some willful suspension of disbelief, he gives us a somewhat open ending; we know it's not happy ever after, but he doesn't waste our time by showing us a "where are they now."

Michel Gondry's best movie to date is still Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with a script by Charlie Kaufman. Gondry's own scripts, like this and The Science of Sleep, aren't as clever but are enjoyable in their DIY way. He reminds me of John Waters and other true indie pioneers, and even Hal Ashby. In the booklet that came with the recently released Harold & Maude Soundtrack LP, the improv style Ashby expected from his actors was remembered, and the same feel is evident here. Everyone talks over each other, mixed metaphors and malapropisms abound, but it's never forced or obviously written.

Gondry is most famous for the home-made props he uses in his music videos and films, such as the giant hands in the dream sequence in The Science of Sleep:
That whole movie was like a dream, and this one is often similar. For example when Jerry gets magnetized, he floats in an electric field and the effects aren't just funny, but bizarre in a dreamlike way; he's genuinely frightened of what happened to him. He goes to the doctor, who just gives him a bottle of aspirin. The Fats Waller movie they end up making and the effects they use are the most dreamlike part of the film. It gives Gondry an excuse to make the weird props and effects he loves, such as a piano with human fingers for keys.

It's certain they had a lot of fun making this movie, almost like a John Landis project- it has that same infectious feel, like they were all friends on the set, and wish you had been there. I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it, but it's not for everyone. It's not all laughs, and if you don't like the characters you're going to be disappointed. His favorite movie is Back to the Future, and the last time I saw that movie I was reminded of how quirky it actually was; he captures some of the same energy here with a lower budget, and there's even a car that looks like the DeLorean made with a Kia and tinfoil, but unfortunately they don't "swede" the movie.

Gondry is from France, but he seems to have a knowledge of Passaic. He films it as a town with character that is being homogenized, and that's not far from the truth. My favorite haunts there are long gone; the Passaic Book Center merged with the Montclair one many years back. The Blue Castle System burger joint is gone. The record shops and martial arts supply places have disappeared, and I bet the porno theater is gone too. Slummy as it was, it had character. I was never afraid going down there on weekends to browse records and used books, and maybe buy a wooden sword to crack our heads on. I could imagine a video store still renting VHS there. Thanks for a sentimental and funny movie, Mr. Gondry. Here's hoping the lukewarm reception at Sundance doesn't stop you from making more like it.

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