Michel Gondry is quickly turning into a one-man argument against auteur theory. Or rather, he is a very strong argument for the theory, given that virtually every element of his most recent films seems to come straight from his own mind. It's just that auteur theory generally assumes that this will yield good results.
I don't like to say that. I've loved most of the director's music videos, some of them ranking among the best ever made, and like everyone else I think that his breakthrough second feature Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the defining films of the decade. Yet there's no denying that his two most recent films - three, if we include the frustrating concert documentary Dave Chapelle's Block Party - have been problematic, for very similar reasons that have everything to do with the man who created them. A year and a half ago, I kind of liked The Science of Sleep, finding its visual creativity more than enough to compensate for its dramatic missteps. But I cannot be such an apologist for Be Kind Rewind, which at best is a collection of very good ideas in search of a framework, and at worst is a dramatically stale film based on a terribly messy screenplay.
What's not to love about the basic concept: Jerry (Jack Black), a man with a magnetised brain, accidentally erases the entire tapes of movies at the aging video rental store where his friend Mike (Mos Def) works for his adopted father Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover). Rather than let the business slide into ruin, the two buddies film replacement versions of the lost movies with no budget and no script. Surprisingly to them, and completely unsurprising to the audience, their 20-minute epics are wildly popular, turning the two men into the biggest stars in their sleepy corner of Passaic, New Jersey.
You can practically reach out and touch what this is supposed to be about: the joy of moviemaking, the love cinema, communities bonding, the American can-do spirit, Fats Waller. Wait, what? Yes indeed, the film has quite the obsession with Fats and the origins of jazz, opening with a homemade documentary about the man's life and death. If I were going to assume that every element of Be Kind Rewind made absolutely perfect sense, I might suggest that jazz, being an improvisational art form, is the spiritual forefather to the gleefully unrehearsed and unplanned films that Jerry and Mike made together. But I am meeting the film a bit more than halfway on that - more like 90% of the way, in fact. The other possibility is that Fats is just meant to add some color to the movie, and some depth to the characters, which I would be willing to accept, perhaps even praise, except that too much of the film, especially in its first act, revolves around the man for it to just be color. It's a major element of Be Kind Rewind, and one that makes not a bit of sense.
Although this is a conspicuous example, it's something that the whole movie suffers from: details that are too present to ignore, but too arbitrary to matter. There is the matter of Mike's behavior in the first act: it certainly looks like he's being shown to be mentally handicapped in some way, and by all appearances Mos Def thought the same thing, judging by his performance and the very strange thing he does with his voice. But once the moviemaking plot kicks in, that element of Mike's character is totally abandoned. There is a simply terrible romantic subplot that dies aborning. And so on and so forth. I almost want to call the script a first draft, with all the ideas that stop and start and are then forgotten. As a direct result of all this aimless digression, the story plods along at a glacial clip, particularly in - once again - the first act, which drags on and on through Fats Waller and Jerry's paranoia about the local power plant (which exists only to facilitate a plot point that could have been knocked out in the film's first five minutes) and the note that Mr. Fletcher leaves Mike that the younger man misreads (a warning to keep Jerry out of the store, and it makes absolutely no sense given everything we know to that point about Jerry, the store, and Mr. Fletcher).
If you can get past the awful dramatic inertia, there are a few bits and pieces that work, but not nearly enough to justify the film's existence. The scenes in which Jerry and Mike recreate classic films are all at least somewhat cute and amusing, although every one of them is a little less so than the one previous, meaning that the Ghostbusters pastiche featured prominently in the trailer is in fact the peak of the comedy. In a few other places, Gondry's brand of visual whimsy is used to good effect, mostly for only one or two shots in a row: I particularly liked the camouflage routine that felt vaguely descended from the Marx Brothers. But there is no trace of the overarching vision that made The Science of Sleep mostly enjoyable, and most of the ideas are present only in a sketchy way, feeling like storyboards more than movie scenes. In a film full of disappointments, the greatest sin Gondry commits may well be giving the brilliant cinematographer Ellen Kuras absolutely nothing worthwhile to do.
I've probably made the film out to seem egregiously bad, which isn't the case. It is mostly just thinly conceived and poorly executed. It's crime is being disaffected far more than being awful. But this is Michel Gondry we're talking about, a man whose early and middle career were marked almost exclusively by brilliant things, and whose every film will raise the undying question, "Is this the next Eternal Sunshine?" Well, Be Kind Rewind isn't even close to that level. It's just the latest stop on the stubbornly declining hill of Gondry's career, and it makes me choke to have to write that.