Jack Black and Mos Def become auteurs of a loosely defined sort in this whimsical comedy.
The natural impulse is to be kind to "Be Kind Rewind." Here is a feel-good film with a gentle comic spirit, a sweet affection for its gallery of silly characters and a sincere love for the process of moviemaking. From time to time as I watched this imaginative, scattershot comedy, I wished that it were funnier, yet I was continually impressed by how very nice it is. I had only a handful of loud laughs, but my smile never wavered.
The film is the latest from Michel Gondry, the postmodern quirkmeister who directed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Science of Sleep." Gondry, whose cheap-and-messy esthetic employs cardboard, tinfoil and duct tape to conjure up naive fantasy landscapes, also wrote the whimsical screenplay, the story of Jerry and Mike (Jack Black and actor-rapper Mos Def), eccentric layabouts who are probably the least productive citizens of rundown Passaic, N.J.
The central location is Be Kind Rewind, a shabby video store run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), curator of several shelves of 1980s and '90s VHS tapes. His decrepit storefront is about to be demolished to make way for a housing project, and only costly structural renovations can spare the place.
The plot takes a surreal turn when Jerry, a junkyard mechanic, becomes temporarily magnetized through a bungled attempt to sabotage the neighborhood's ominous power plant. Jerry wanders through Be Kind in a funk, his magnetism erasing the tapes. To calm dissatisfied customers, the friends slap together brief, amateur-video versions of well-known films, recreating the stories from memory and improvising childishly clunky special effects. Mike's brisk direction to Jerry as they launch a remake of "Ghostbusters" is, "I'm Bill Murray, you're everybody else."
Black and Def have an agreeable Laurel and Hardy chemistry, spatting affectionately in the leading roles. The closest thing to dramatic conflict arrives when Mike walks off their zero-budget re-do of "Driving Miss Daisy," calling the original "condescending."
The remakes are zany squiggles of outsider art. In place of blood spatters, Mike and Jerry's "Boyz N the Hood" uses strategically placed pizzas to represent exit wounds. The porn-industry drama "Boogie Nights" features actors innocently trampolining on a mattress.
The home-skillet remakes take off, the store is swamped by fans, and the freewheeling filmmakers turn Jerry's scrap yard into a manic assembly line cranking out absurd approximations of "2001," "Carrie" and "Robocop." Can the ever-vigilant movie studio lawyers be far behind?
The pacing of the film is as shapeless as the little parodies Gondry's heroes create. There's a half-hearted love story involving a girl from the dry cleaner's (Melonie Diaz), a subplot about a rival DVD chain whose clerks know nothing about movies, and elementary suspense over whether the city will go through with its demolition plans.
The film's guiding spirit is Fats Waller, the jazz giant who Mr. Fletcher insists was born in the tenement housing his store. Waller looms over the story like a guardian angel, blessing the on-the-fly moviemakers' improvised artistry.
When the population of Passaic rallies behind their neighborhood auteurs to help produce an original epic based on Waller's life, the screen erupts with joyous imagination like a rumpus room full of 8-year-olds playing with action figures. They walk life-sized photos of vintage cars down the city streets, dance and jive like 1920s revelers, and improvise a plot for the story that has nothing to do with Waller's biography.
When the finished film is showed in a darkened room, the glow reflected from the screen onto the viewers' faces is pale compared to their smiles. There won't be many frowns in theaters showing Gondry's film, either.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186