Be Kind Rewind is nothing but a trifle: a sweet, technically crude little comedy. It’s of note only because it is so terribly put together, and yet the work of an artist whose reputation is based on technical sophistication. Writer-director Michel Gondry’s experimental techniques beautifully served Charlie Kaufman’s unorthodox screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he seems to innately sense the lack of inspiration in his own material and just can’t bring himself to direct it.
The high-concept premise is intriguing enough. Mike (Mos Def), a clerk at a dilapidated, Kevin Smith-esque video store, erases all the tapes and needs to film homemade replacements. But after seeing Jerry (Jack Black)—banned from the store by its owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover)—survive electrocution at a power plant and become “magnetized,” you brace yourself for the worst. The plot clips on without ever clicking and all predictable storytelling methods are adopted, until the end, that is, when predictability is replaced by implausibility—more on that later. Mr. Fletcher is on vacation when Jerry screws up the tapes. The store is facing abolition for a new shopping plaza. A pretty girl (Melonie Diaz) is co-opted to help and sticks with the boys—has she nothing better to do? They replace the lost movies with cheesy knockoffs they produce themselves, and the replacements begin to attract long lines of customers. The trio becomes local celebrities. Jerry becomes a primadonna starlet. They take pride in their work and the whole neighborhood gets involved. One’s fears that this is actually for the Nacho Libre audience become overwhelming.
Jack Black is a lump on the screen and he smears all over his scenes because there’s no one for his outsize acting to bounce off of. Only when other characters are played too broadly—as much of the supporting cast is—does Black demur, as in the scenes with the stereotypical kids from the hood. Black can be funny when working with a good script and a director who can control the comedian’s seemingly involuntary exhibitionism. In Be Kind Rewind, he’s magnetized, all right, but he doesn’t stick to chain link fences—he’s stuck to Gondry. Black is the director’s trump card, but Gondry loses almost every hand because everything else he’s got is just a two of clubs. Black’s small victory is that he’s the only one who plays dumb colorfully. Mos Def looks like he was tranquilized before every shoot; his character’s a flimsy yawn, a set piece for Black to toy with.
Here’s an example of the director’s shoddy handling of a joke. Jerry compares their home movies with Shakespeare, but mispronounces the Bard’s name. As Black delivers the line it’s mildly funny, but then Gondry cuts to Mike asking, “What did you say?” then Jerry not knowing what he’s done wrong, then Mike laughing it off, saying, “Nothing…” Gondry’s pacing is unbearably goopy. He moves the film along like a slug on caffeine binges; and when things finally happen, you can’t figure out why.