Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind is both sweet and inventive, but to say that it lives up to the expectations laid down by his previous works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would probably be going just a tad too far. The zany premise is that Mike (Mos Def) has been left in charge of the video store owned by his boss and quasi surrogate father (it's unclear), Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), while he goes out of town. Upon the venerable man's departure, Mike's friend Jerry (Jack Black) accidentally gets himself magnetized in an incident at the adjacent power plant, and inadvertently erases all of the store's tapes, leaving the two to recreate the classic films with nothing but some elbow grease and the creative use of household objects. They dub their brand of film reinvention "Sweding" -- a name Jerry comes up with on the spot, hoping to make the process sound exotic and possibly European. It doesn't work.
Of course, this is a Gondry film, so beneath the wild and crazy premise of the plot is the poignant and bittersweet premise of the subtext. In this case, it revolves around the bleakness of the video store's destitute New Jersey neighborhood. Again and again, the film comes back to the idea that the myths we turn to for comfort and for identity are ours to create, whether we're making our favorite movies our own (which Mike and Jerry do quite literally) or inventing our histories (which the whole ensemble does, by extolling their city as the supposed birthplace of jazz musician Fats Waller). The juxtaposition of the guys' funny and inspired film remaking process against the dead-end nature of their crappy neighborhood is good, but probably not as effective as it was meant to be. The two parts are clearly supposed to be alternate sides of the same paradoxical coin, intended to show how hardship and despair often inspire the most tremendous displays of hope and creativity. Except, all too often, the opposing moods of the film don't read as self-creating and self-sustaining, but rather as simply disjointed.
Watching Mike and Jerry making their movies is downright delightful, and the Sweded films are no doubt the heart of the film. In lieu of money, or even time, the duo employs limitless ingenuity and an enduring love of movies, conjuring pure enchantment every time they roll camera. It's gleeful and gratifying whether they're working on Rush Hour 2 or Last Tango in Paris, which is why it feels so uneven for us not to be shown more of their adventures behind the camera -- let alone their finished products. The disappointingly small amount of screen time that the Sweded films are allotted makes it feel like Gondry is skipping out on the element of the movie we relate to most. And while the Be Kind Rewind's serious content is often moving and eloquent, it's also frequently rambling and slow.
Despite its faults, the film is still full of great performances, especially by Mos Def, who could easily have played the simple straight man to Black's highly caffeinated antics but instead opted to subtly flesh Mike out into someone very real. The film is also deft in hitting home its themes about nostalgia being so vital to us -- though it expresses those sentiments in pretty obvious terms as well, hence the plot hinging on a room full of VHS tapes. True to form, Gondry offers equal parts hope and heartbreak in his ending, but the greater tragedy may lay in the uncertainty of whether the ending, or indeed the film, packs all the emotional punch that he intended.