movieguru (2008-09)

Rewind ButtonWalker

Movie Guru

Jack Black and Mos Def keep Be Kind Rewind just mad enough

by Dave Prince

Ever have one of those days where you find yourself a ridiculous person in a ludicrous situation in a bizarre town full of absurd people, and all those abnormal elements somehow add up to a bafflingly normal total? Thatâ’s a pretty accurate (if long-winded) one-sentence summary of Be Kind Rewind, Jack Blackâ’s latest expedition into cinematic wackiness.

Blackâ’s Jerry is Be Kind Rewindâ’s embodiment of Homer Simpsonâ’s beerâ"the cause of, and solution for, all the problems around him. A trailer-dwelling conspiracy theorist and second-hand auto-parts dealer in a town where thatâ’s a legitimate career choice, Jerryâ’s anti-establishment crusade leads to disaster when a botched power-grid sabotage attempt turns him into a living electromagnet.

In the DVD era, this shouldnâ’t be a problem, but Rewindâ’s Passaic, N.J., seems to reside in the same Twilight Zone America with Napoleon Dynamiteâ’s time-warped version of Preston, Idaho. Jerryâ’s best friend, Mike (Mos Def), has somehow managed to find gainful employment in a store that still exclusively stocks VHS tapes. Once Jerryâ’s condition inevitably wipes clean Mikeâ’s inventory, the two have to cover up the disaster by the only means at their disposal: manually recreating every movie in stock as it is requested.

Of course, film logic unavoidably kicks in and the plan becomes just crazy enough to work; business picks up, and a sleepy little town wakes up to the wonder of Spunky Hometown Heroes Using Their Dreams to Save the Day just in time to fight renovation-hungry property developers and the lawsuit-hungry Motion Picture Alliance of America. (Note to Hollywood: As funny as casting the MPAA as the antagonist is, slapping on tear-jerking endings in the last five minutes got on my nerves when I was four. Stop it).

Actually, mentioning Black early and often probably does the film a disservice. Itâ’s not just one of those Jack Black one-offs; Black has top billing, and his character is integral to the storyline, but mostly as a mechanism to get the plot going or as a fount of madness from which its outlandish ideas spring. Itâ’s a terrible thing to say, I know, but whoever cast Black as a madman with an ego problem who thinks he can act and whose hammy posturing is used for comic relief is an absolute genius.

One of these days, maybe Black will get a Jamie Foxx-as-Ray Charles-level break, but until then, as long as his handlers can keep him from trying to steal the show, roles like Rewindâ’s Jerry should keep his career afloat. Mos Defâ’s Mike, for his part, is affable yet subdued, as though a little bit of self-awareness is in there somewhere, constantly being browbeaten by everything elseâ’s ambient weirdness. Meanwhile, Danny Glover has apparently gotten over getting too old for this shit and has instead embraced itâ"his portrayal of Be Kind Rewind (the store, not the movie) patriarch Mr. Fletcher, awash in tradition but straining quixotically against its sedentary effect on his business, is Rewindâ’s mandatory poignant element.

Rewind is a weird buddy comedy, like Clerks if Kevin Smith had gotten really drunk, watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Beavis and Butthead Do America back-to-back before writing his script. The back-and-forth between the main characters, the supporting cast, and their world at large approaches cleverness, but it only makes sense within the context of a place thatâ’s a little off-kilter.

At itâ’s core, though, Be Kind Rewind one of those smartly stupid flicks that grabs the choice demographic with a name (Black), muddies the water with other names in non-traditional roles (Mos Def, Glover, and Mia Farrow), throws in a few non-names in speaking roles for flavor, steeps for a couple of hours in wacky antics, and serves chilled. Depending on your tastes, it probably wonâ’t blow your mind, man, but it suffices as a nice fluffy snack.

Or, you know, as a rental.

Rental Hygiene

An American with an unshakeable belief in his own destiny and a yen to spread democracy gathers an under-sized army and journeys uninvited to a third-world country, where he inserts himself between feuding factions, ends up taking over the place, and runs it into the ground. And itâ’s a true story, too.

Alex Coxâ’s indie epic Walker was greeted by withering reviews and empty theaters upon its 1987 release. To be sure, itâ’s a far cry from better-known, and better, Cox titles Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Still, viewing it in Iraq-mired 2008 thanks to a typically top-drawer Criterion Collection edition, you may find yourself surprisingly sympathetic to Coxâ’s absurdist satire, which barely functions as an adventure but has plenty of fun with foreign adventurism.

Ed Harris plays it straight as William Walker, a renaissance man and would-be firebrand who invaded Nicaragua in 1855 with a cadre of 57 men to â“liberateâ” it. The fact that he did so for pay at the behest of wealthy and powerful Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle in a delicious cameo) never dims Walkerâ’s humanist-crusader rhetoric as he loses men by the dozen, wins battles by accident, and trades democratic ideals for totalitarianism. The filmâ’s tone is no more consistent than Walkerâ’s progress, toggling between spurting Peckinpah-esque slo-mo and clumsy black humor (albeit some of it pretty funny).

Rampant anachronisms that mount throughout the film (copies of Newsweek, Marlboros, a helicopter) are no doubt supposed to underline the parallels between bad-idea U.S. foreign policy in the 1850s and bad-idea U.S. foreign policy in the 1980sâ"not that Cox doesnâ’t make that overabundantly clear anyway. No one was prepared to hear it then, even in the year the Iran-Contra scandal broke. Itâ’s a bit moreâ"and lessâ"funny now. â"Lee Gardner

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