It doesn’t take much miscalculation to turn whimsy into stupidity, and Michel Gondry definitely crosses the line in “Be Kind Rewind,” a comedy that also has the misfortune of being culturally tone-deaf. One can see what the writer-director was aiming for—recreating the scruffy sort of slacker comedy that budget-starved filmmakers made in the sixties and seventies, while sending up feel-good flicks about goofballs saving some fringe business from destruction at the hands of “the man.” But the level of foolishness here is simply too high, and the execution so slapdash that the result doesn’t seem so much a parody of amateurishness as an example of it.
The locale of the action is a run-down store in a drab neighborhood of Passaic, New Jersey that, for some unexplained reason, still rents out only VHS tapes of movies, never having moved to the DVD format. Presumably the set-up is intended as a variant of the music store of “High Fidelity,” but it’s unbelievable—there are still fans of LP records over CDs, but does anybody actually collect video tapes anymore? But that problem just involves the location. The real difficulty occurs when the plot kicks in as grizzled owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), pressured by a city administration that wants to tear his store down to make room for condos, leaves the place in the keeping of his rather slow clerk Mike (Mos Def) while he goes off, apparently to scope out other stores for clues about improving business.
Unfortunately Mike’s closest buddy is neighborhood oddball Jerry (Jack Black), a motormouth wack job who gets magnetized trying to sabotage the local power plant and accidentally erases all the store’s tapes. One might think the boys would think of replacing them by making tape copies from DVDs—an easy process. But instead they decide to film their own versions of the movies. We’re supposed to get a kick out of watching them “re-enacting,” in their blundering, bargain-basement way, scenes from pictures like “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour 2,” but the fact is that the experience is positively painful, especially since apparently the only instruction that Gondry gave to Black was to be as irritating and strident as humanly possible, a directive he proved all too capable of fulfilling.
But the script then ratchets up the implausibility quotient by alleging that the boys’ homemade videos become hugely popular among the locals, until anti-piracy studio bigwigs intervene. And tossed into the mix to provide a nutty upbeat finale is a plot thread about jazz legend Fats Waller, who—Fletcher claims—was born in the building where his store’s located. The final effort to save the place involves making a neighborhood movie about Waller’s life, in spite of the fact that Fletcher admits his story is a crock.
So’s Gondry’s, and it’s unlikely to enjoy a similar degree of unlikely success, not only because it’s a totally lame bit of preciousness, and one so sloppily made that it has the quality of a bad student film (and it doesn’t matter if that’s intentional). Under the circumstances it’s not surprising that the actors fare poorly. Black throws himself into things with a maniacal intensity that’s exhaustingly unfunny from frame one, and Def is positively soporific by comparison. Glover, decked out in bad old-age makeup, sleepwalks almost as pitifully, and Sigourney Weaver is wasted as the hard-nosed studio lawyer who puts the kibosh to the boys’ movies with a steamroller.
It’s a pity that machine wasn’t also employed to crush the negative of “Be Kind Rewind” before it was unleashed on an unwary world. Even fans of Gondry’s earlier, vastly overpraised pictures should agree that in this case the emperor has no clothes.