A new satirical website called Stuff White People Like has earned three million visits in the last ten days by offering dead-on deadpan analyses of status symbols among the under-40 upper middle class. Listed along with such de rigueur affectations of the more-sensitive-than-thou set as "Apple Products," "Threatening to Move to Canada," and "Barack Obama," is "Michel Gondry," the French director of Bjork's music videos and "such white classics as 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.'"
Christian Lander, who masterminds the site, helpfully advises:
"[Mentioning Gondry] can be used to help find common ground with white people. Talk about how you wanted to direct music videos after you saw Michel Gondry’s video for “Around the World” by Daft Punk. Then make a joke about how foolish you were at that age and everyone will have a good laugh. But they will also feel your pain about sacrificing your artistic dreams."
Like much of the stuff white people like, there is something to be said for the ingenious and ingenuous Gondry, whose video autobiography is aptly entitled "I've Been 12 Forever." His twee trademarks are childlike sets and props that he might have made out of cardboard and other junk he found in his dad's garage. Indeed, I found Gondry's surrealist comedy "The Science of Sleep," with Gael García Bernal as a boyish graphics designer who can't tell his waking and dreaming lives apart, the most delightful movie of 2006.
Yet, while Apple can charge $800 extra for a laptop, movie tickets all cost about the same, so having a small upscale fan base doesn't do much financially for Gondry. To escape the status-striver's ghetto and connect with the American mass market, Gondry is recycling the do-it-yourself aesthetic of "Science" in "Be Kind Rewind." It stars part-time heavy metal singer Jack Black and part-time rapper Mos Def. Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, American lunkheadedness and French condescension make an ineffectual combination.
While Mos Def is #68 on the Stuff White People Like site, Jack Black's reputation is in decline. Here, he plays the same character as in "School of Rock" and all his other films, the pop culture-obsessed loser. Yet, the suspicion is growing that perhaps Black isn't a genius who understands the common mind -- maybe he just has the common mind.
The premise of "Be Kind Rewind" is even more rickety than that of "Science." Mos Def is the mild-mannered clerk at Danny Glover's dusty VHS-only video store in the slums of Passaic, New Jersey. While the owner is on vacation, the assistant's paranoid friend (Black) tries to sabotage the next-door power plant. The electro-magnetic pulse erases all the videotapes.
To prevent the owner's dotty friend (Mia Farrow) from tattling when she finds out that "Ghostbusters" is blank, they reshoot it in an afternoon: "I'll be Bill Murray; you be everyone else." Soon, the whole neighborhood wants to appear in their 20-minute zero-budget remakes of famous movies.
"Be Kind Rewind" is a tribute to the You Tube generation's devotion to making stuff up themselves -- albeit, an inordinately expensive accolade to amateurism. Gondry, who spent only $6 million on "Science," somehow squandered $20 million here. The endless credits list for this elephantine trifle include 16 drivers and a "second second assistant director."
There wasn't enough in the budget, though, for a good script doctor. Gondry's amusing trilingual screenplay for "Science of Sleep" showed that the screenwriting Oscar he won for co-authoring "Eternal Sunshine" with the great Charlie Kaufman wasn't wholly a gift. Yet, as talented as the auteur is, it's asking too much of the visually-oriented Frenchman to expect him to write witty dialogue in English.
Still, "Rewind" raises the question of whether, with an infinite number of choices in free entertainment (some of it as good as Stuff) just a click away, can going to the movies survive?
I think so. First, trying to perfect anything visual requires endless work (as the film's three-month shooting schedule suggests). This means the nonprofessionals who have enough time and energy to shoot their own movies are generally so young they haven't had a life yet, and can merely parody the pop culture rattling around inside their heads.
Second, one big reason Americans still spend $9.7 billion annually on movie tickets is to be forced to sit still and watch a single story for two hours without the nagging sense that you could (and thus should) be surfing to something else cooler.
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.