Don’t erase ‘Be Kind Rewind’

Michael Gondry makes an art-comedy that you wouldn’t sacrifice for a spotless mind.

Michael Gondry is a brave man. First he stuck Jim Carey at the center of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and now he’s cast Jack Black as the star of “Be Kind Rewind.” Using actors whose movies are often defined by their antics is a risk for any avant-garde filmmaker, but Gondry always manages to keep their onscreen personas at bay, their peculiarities as underwritten as the quirks of the characters they play. He’s even dared to give it a plot that appears uncharacteristically simple: Two video store clerks get their films erased, and decide to record their own versions. Has Gondry traded his French philosophical musings and cut and paste settings for the sake of mass accessibility?

“Be Kind Rewind”

Directed by: Michael Gondry
Starring: Jack Black, Mos Def, Melonie Diaz
Rated: PG-13
Showing at: Area Theaters

The truth is Gondry wouldn’t know how to sell out. The weirdness is most likely too entrenched in the folds of his brain. What appears a simple plot is only for the sake of commercials.

The video store, called Be Kind Rewind, is actually a dying VHS shack stuck in an out-of-code building, and the clerks, played by Mos Def and Black, are actually a child-like cashier named Mike, and Jerry, his slightly schizophrenic friend who hangs out in the junkyard next door. The owner of the shop, played by Danny Glover, has taken a vacation to study the movie renting business by spying on a Hollywood Video-like rental store with binoculars and a legal pad. Things start to go bad when a few plump, starkly white city planners enter the scene, itching to replace Be Kind Rewind with a few plump, starkly white condos.

And the inanity rolls in. Jerry decides the power plant is melting his brain, and after an attempt to sabotage it, he walks away so magnetized that when he pees in the street it glows and collects dimes. His charge erases the tapes, and Mike decides, out of desperation, to simply re-make the movies on the original tapes.

The idea of every tape being suddenly blank must be one of Gondry’s greatest fears, somewhat like an athlete waking up to find that his muscles have inexplicably dwindled. Such unpredictable interruptions of reality are territory that the director has an adept psychological understanding of, and a central theme of “Be Kind Rewind” is the way that life can suddenly unwind from its vertex.

But for Gondry, chaos and instability are only excuses for creativity. Suddenly the raving, ruminating Black is an artistic genius, easily slipping into the character of a southern woman one day and King Kong the next. Like Stéphane in Gondry’s “Science of Sleep,” his character can easily be diagnosed with a mental illness, but each film holds the subtle argument that the borders of how people think should be ignored. No one mentions it, and instead, the film world allows them to function independently, ultimately to propose new ways that day-to-day life could be experienced.

The settings portray this off-center reality with trinkets that recall Picasso-era surrealism. One movie prop, a guitar made out of two old tires and a bar, is practically lifted from one of the painter’s own compositions. Gondry isn’t afraid to get gritty, creating living spaces out of junkyards and costumes out of scrap metal. He’s not the type of artist to demand fancy materials; he, like the characters, can communicate best with old toys, cardboard and anything else that a kindergarten class might be working with.

“Be Kind Rewind” is, of course, a meta-movie, a film about films. The Recording Industry Association of America makes an appearance, but this is by no means a movie whose sole purpose is to argue against the loathed copyright protecting battalion. Instead, Gondry focuses on showing people’s completely un-snobbish love for cinema, and it’s obvious that he’s in his prime territory.