“Be Kind Rewind” is not worth the time it takes to rewind it. Michel Gondry’s film starts off slow and throughout its 101 minutes never attains the momentum needed to redeem itself. It begins with a black and white film montage of the life of jazz musician Fats Waller and quickly transitions to present-day New Jersey where Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) are painting graffiti of Waller under an overpass. The film’s beginning is clever enough, with Mike accidentally painting an eye where Waller’s nostril should be, and then yelling at Jerry for giving him the wrong template to copy.
An allusion to the bygone days of VHS, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) leaves the care of his video store, aptly named “Be Kind Rewind,” to his adopted son Mike when he goes off to New York in search of some way to redeem his faltering business. Mr. Fletcher’s last desperate advice, scrawled on the window of his departing train, is for Mike to “Keep Jerry Out” of the video store, lest he break something. This message, read backwards by Mike on the other side of the window, leads him and Jerry to decide that Mr. Fletcher is illiterate, after being unable to unscramble the code.
For reasons unbeknownst to the audience, and seemingly out of any concordance with the established plot, Jerry decides to sabotage the local power plant, enlisting Mike’s help. What follows is a haltingly funny scene, yet Jerry’s electrocution and resulting magnetism — which causes the erasing of all the tapes in Mr. Fletcher’s shop — is just too much.
The film redeems itself temporarily as Jerry and Mike, to appease their loyal customers, begin creating their own versions of their viewers’ favorite titles, employing the help of a local Laundromat assistant Alma (Melonie Diaz). Their rendition of “Rush Hour 2” is particularly amusing. The duo hangs from the monkey bars at a local playground with a children’s road map mat underneath them, creating the illusion that they are hanging from a building with the city far below. In fact, they are merely standing on the ground, holding each other.
There are certain clever — yet easily overlooked — punch lines throughout the script as well. While sneaking into the power plant, Jerry and Mike coordinate their outfits to blend into the chain-link fence surrounding the premises, complete with warning signs that match up with the danger signs on the fence, rendering them invisible to the police that arrive.
Yet these clever moments are not strong enough to compensate for the ultimately half-baked plot and incomplete characters. In a moment of frustration over Mike’s refusal to help in his power plant sabotage, Jerry yells at Mike for having no ambition. Not only is this outburst completely against Jerry’s pre-established character, his hunger for a higher dream is dropped immediately; in the next scene Jerry returns to the role of a middle-class mechanic, content to live in his New Jersey junkyard and eat grilled cheese sandwiches.
Along with the shallow character types comes an equally superficial and ill-planned plot sequence. There are too many storylines tacked onto the film, rendering it jumpy and hard to follow. The faltering attempt at a love story is condensed into one dialogue, and the rocky relationship between Mike and Mr. Fletcher is not developed. The legal ramifications of Jerry’s and Mike’s re-creation of copyrighted material are merely glossed over, and seem tacked on as an afterthought.
Gondry’s tendency to employ avant-garde film techniques shines through at particular moments, but he should have utilized them further. When Jerry is electrocuted and magnetized, the actual frame becomes skewed, fuzzing in and out, and sounds of static can be heard, as if Jerry is actually affecting the transmission of the film itself. The creative use of film as medium is rare in contemporary cinematography, and recalls the work of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith.
While intended as a comedy, the film doesn’t take itself seriously enough, and seems haphazardly slapped together in the hopes of eliciting a good laugh. It is meant to be a feel-good movie, with the interests of the local townspeople triumphing over big, bad corporations, but even this struggle is weak at best. The premise is shaky (who can truly believe that patrons would pay $20 for a 20-minute home movie?), and the end of the film leaves the plot unresolved. Fans of Jack Black and Danny Glover will not find their best work in “Be Kind Rewind,” and would be better off renting a different title from Mr. Fletcher’s store.