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Be Kind Rewind (2008)

by on 2010/03/12

There comes a point in the evolution of most media when its participants express themselves in the manner of the message itself.  This postmodern, or meta-level, approach has become relatively common.  Director Michel Gondry employs just such a strategy in this movie, but only serves to prompt the question, “Do you need to fail your audience when expressing failure?”

Be Kind Rewind tells the story of the titular video rental store.  Local ordinance and financial pressures threaten to shut down the business, which then suffers another inopportune blow:  all of the tapes are spontaneously erased.  In order to salvage matters, the acting manager (played by Mos Def) and village idiot (Jack Black) restore the movies by performing no-budget reenactments, a process they dub “sweding”.

Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) gives a great performance here as store owner Elroy Fletcher.  While the beleaguered underdog is a hackneyed cliche, Glover aims for something more than the tired victim saved by forces outside himself.  Fletcher asserts himself with quiet dignity, taking threats in stride, and resolutely does what he must to survive, even if it requires the effort of learning something new, and changing with the times.  This is not a character that stubbornly adheres to old habits and triumphs over the new; conversely, he doesn’t abandon his ideals in a crisis either.  It’s a balanced and interesting portrait.

Interesting too — and unexpectedly affecting — is the final act, when the community rallies together for survival and, in doing so, creates something transcendent.  (For the purpose of this review, I’ll ignore the sense that their creation feels ethically dodgy.)  Unfortunately that denouement and any moments like it are too rare, too little, too late.

So while I was won by certain spots, I was mostly frustrated by downsides.  I like the concept of sweding, and the drive to tell the overall story in a similar way, but intent alone is not enough.  Watching Be Kind Rewind I felt like a math teacher forced to grade an otherwise promising student, who had inexplicably supplied the wrong answers, and shown none of their work.

Only rarely do I want to stop watching something outright.  If I do, it’s usually because I intend to return later.  And though I was ultimately pleased by the ending, I couldn’t have cared less along the way.  I felt lost, indifferent, and bored.  It didn’t matter to me whether the oddly unlikable protagonists succeeded.  In fact, by rights, I thought they should fail.  But where characters fail, story can win.  Not so here.  The plot presumed to dictate how to feel and what to think, without truly earning those reactions.  I can’t take brilliance on faith; I need to be shown, not told.

I appreciate Be Kind Rewind’s intent, what it tries to do, and how it tries to do it.  I truly wanted to like and praise the film.  Gondry has done some admirable work, including Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” from Donnie Darko, the I-dated-an-Australian episode of Flight of the Conchords, and the awesome feature film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  With so much opportunity unrealized, however, this particular piece left me terribly disappointed.

* *

Rated PG for language

102 minutes

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