Cruel to Be Kind
Michael Gondry’s latest film features his usual whimsy and other-worldliness — but what he really needs is a good screenwriter.
After establishing himself as one of pop music’s premier video directors, and moving on to direct one of Hollywood’s more singular pieces of recent years, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry is at a point where his name alone evokes a distinct, particular style of film making. But perhaps his latest offering, Be Kind, Rewind, ticks off the register of Gondry hallmarks a little too easily.
While he has not entered the world of self-parody yet, most of the elements of Be Kind, Rewind are predictably in line with his previous work: the whimsy; the otherworldiness; the saccharine charm; the sense of being lost in adulthood; the usually demonstrative comic lead actor recast in a softer light.
Not that Gondry doesn’t know how to play to his strengths. Be Kind, Rewind successfully tones down the otherworldliness without eschewing it altogether. Hence, the slight silliness of the plot: village idiot Jerry (played by Jack Black) receives a magnetic charge whilst protesting against a nuclear power plant. Newly magnetised, he proceeds to wipe the videotapes at the dilapidated VHS store where his best friend Mike is working. Realising that the tapes have been wiped and that the few remaining clients either want the film or their money back, Jerry and Mike set about recording their own idiosyncratic versions of the lost films.
The remainder of the film is rooted in the real world, namely the New Jersey city of Passaic, a tight-knit community overlooked by everyone but the taxman and the municipal planners. Passaic’s halcyon era was the 1920s and 30s (romanticised here by Danny Glover’s character, Fletcher), when local hero Fats Waller was in his prime. But even then, Passaic was overshadowed by the more glamourous jazz scene in Harlem.
However, to counterbalance any sense of the harsh, unforgiving reality closing in on naives unable deal with the outside world, Gondry allows free rein for his trademark whimsy. This is why his predilection for putting overblown comedians at the centre of his films, like Dave Chappelle in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine and Jack Black in Be Kind, Rewind, is so effective. In this case, Black’s energy prevents what could be a sickly concoction from feeling too thin, whilst his own tendency for over exuberance is tamed by the gentle whimsy.
But the film’s greatest strength lies in the gloriously silly homemade 20-minute versions of the wiped films, which Jerry, nonsensically, calls ‘Swedes’. From the likes of Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 to Driving Miss Daisy, these cartoonish exaggerations and mocking parodies of Hollywood are reminiscent of the striking and endearing videos Gondry made for MTV.
Passiac likewise is won over by their combination of jeu d’esprit and a fumbling backdoor amateurism. The Swedes become a word of mouth sensation, with people queuing up to star in a Swede of their own choice, and briefly look like they can pay the rent on the failing store before Hollywood lawyers throw a bucket of cold water on the trade with extortionate copyright demands. With the vultures circling, the film’s eponymous video store employees give up on the Swedes but not the building or the community. In a last-ditch attempt to save the store, they spend their last week of residency recording a film of Fats Waller’s life, again on a low budget, but this time on a wider scale, taking in the entire community as contributors and supporting actors.
This brings together most of the film’s rather trite themes: the sheer innocent joy of working on art for its own sake and pleasures, the pressures the artist faces from the taxman and the suits, the manner in which we portray, incorporate and mythologise our own backyard no matter how neglected or unassuming it may seem. Thankfully, none of this is dealt with a heavy hand; Gondry prefers to charm lightly than to preach earnestly. The downside comes with the utterly schmaltzy ending; having led his audience to suspend their disbelief in order to accommodate his imagination and creativity, it is a letdown that he resorts to a lazy, stock finish.
Shorn of a killer screenwriter like Eternal Sunshine’s Charlie Kaufman to provide a narrative thrust and worthwhile finale, another of Gondry’s major faults emerges. Although he is imaginative and eye-catching, he doesn’t have anywhere to take his ideas. His past as a pop music video director feels more apparent than ever: the most successful part of the film are the Swedes, the small bursts of gleeful comic sketches which grab one’s attention for a few minutes at a time. Jerry and Mike may not have been the sharpest tools in the box, but they realised that films based on such slight conceits benefited from being short and sweet. Having overextended an amusing premise, Gondry would have done well to take a leaf out of their book.
John Marr is currently interning at spiked.
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