THE LAST BLOCKBUSTER

Producer: Zeke Kamm   Director: Taylor Morden   Screenplay: Zeke Kamm   Cast: Sandi Harding, Doug Benson, Jamie Kennedy, Samm Levine, Lloyd Kaufman, Adam Brody, Ione Skye, Kevin Smith, Paul Scheer, Eric Close, Ken Tisher, Tom Case and Lauren Lupkus   Distributor: 1091 Films

Grade: C+

There’s a great deal of affection—too much, perhaps—in Taylor Morden’s documentary about the Blockbuster video rental chain in general and the last surviving Blockbuster store in particular.   The film, shot in homely style by Morden, Zeke Kamm, Gary Eidsmoe and Noah Mucci and narrated in sprightly fashion by Lauren Lupkus, runs for eighty-six minutes, but could easily have been trimmed to an hour or less; the sense of padding is all too palpable.

Still, it’s understandable that Morden and his editor Tim Skousen should have been reluctant to exclude too much of the all-star interviews they managed to coral with those noted in the credits above.  Nonetheless it has to be said that many of the comments are obvious and repetitive, and that the extended sequences featuring Doug Benson and Sandi Harding do go on.

Harding is the manager of the Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon, which by the close of the film is the only store bearing the name still in existence.  She’s been at the job for a decade and a half, and calls herself a Blockbuster Mom since she’s employed many of the town’s teens as clerks over the years.  She’s obviously dedicated to her work, and a pleasant person whom we’re glad to see get permission to continue using the Blockbuster moniker at the close of the documentary.  But as nice as Harding is, the scenes featuring her become more and more dragged-out and familiar as the picture runs on.

Benson, by contrast, is one of the name players who happily recalls his own experiences as a young man traversing the aisles of his local Blockbuster and scanning the titles.  Morden and Skousen return to his interviews again and again in the early portions of their film, and then devote a lengthy section toward the close covering his visit to Harding’s store.  His comments, unhappily, aren’t as amusing as he seems to think they are; even his texting his friend Kumail Nanjiani to let him know there’s a copy of “The Big Sick” on the last Blockbuster’s shelves falls rather flat.

By contrast the other celebrity interviewees are seen in brief snippets, for the most part, and their remarks are mostly nostalgic reminiscences about how much they enjoyed going to video stores in their younger days.  Only Kevin Smith tries to offer something a bit more analytical in his several appearances, though it seems that Eric Close actually lives near Bend and can speak from the local perspective.  Of course we also see regular folks come from considerable distances to visit the store for nostalgia’s sake, as Benson does.

Preceding the material on Harding and her Bend store is a more general introduction on how the video rental business came about after the introduction of tapes and players in the late 1970s, how stores prospered for a considerable time, and why Blockbusters came to be dominant through franchising and standardization.  There are interviews with entrepreneurs who established their own chains and Blockbuster franchisees who made good livings from their operations.

But inevitably change came, and the business took a turn for the worse, eventually succumbing to new technologies like streaming services.  It’s asked whether Netflix killed rental outlets like Blockbuster, and the answer isn’t as simple as you might think.  In fact, it’s anecdotally reported that at one point an offer was made to sell the nascent Netflix to Viacom, Blockbuster’s corporate parent, but was rejected out of hand.  Rather it’s argued that a string of bad decisions on the part of its owners, especially their inability to understand the promise of new technologies, made the chain’s demise inevitable.

One can’t avoid feeling sorry for those who lost heavily in the video rental game, and happy that, for now at least, Sandi Harding’s store keeps chugging along, a dinosaur that’s managing to survive on pluck and a clever appeal to nostalgia.  It’s a pity that this generally likable documentary about it couldn’t have been more imaginative in trying to justify its over-extended running-time.