Many a tear has been shed over gentrification's pitiless march. But no one has wept with as much ingenuity as writer-director Michel Gondry in "Be Kind Rewind." When the goodly Passaic, N.J., developers tell old Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) the city's going to tear down Be Kind Rewind, his corner video mart, to put up a nicer building, you might take a look at the cramped brown shack and wonder, "Does a store specializing in VHS rentals have any business being open in 2008?" Probably not.
But logic on any level is the last thing Gondry is worried about. It's the last thing you should worry about, too. Especially once that store becomes a makeshift film studio in whose name Mos Def and Jack Black remake Mr. Fletcher's damaged inventory. It starts with "Ghostbusters" and culminates in a flurry of no-budget round-the-clock custom-made productions - "RoboCop," "Last Tango in Paris," "King Kong," "Carrie," "Boyz N the Hood." Their rousingly bad moviemaking brings out some of Gondry's most blissful.
How this comes to pass is better left for a first-hand encounter or for a roundtable discussion at a science-fiction convention. Suffice it to say that Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Black) spring to action after Jerry demagnetizes all the videocassettes in a freak accident. Mike is minding the store while Mr. Fletcher's away and decides it'd be easier to shoot a ghetto "Ghostbusters" than buy it from the West Coast Video down the street. So with a lot of tinfoil and Mike's emergency casting ("I'm Bill Murray and you're everybody else") a craze is born.
Soon hipsters, thugs, regular folks, and Mia Farrow (having a ball playing a woman named Miss Falewicz) are lining up to order titles. And Mike, Jerry, and their quick-thinking co-conspirator Alma (the heart-meltingly wonderful Mel onie Diaz), are charging $20 rental fees for movies they claim are from Sweden. Thus their remakes are instantly called "sweded" versions, a perfect term less since it recalls the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and more because it evokes the process of assembling cheap, boxed furniture yourself. Gondry has hit upon the Ikea version of moviemaking.
Really, all these three are making is viral videos. Here, though, the virus brings people out of their houses and onto the streets. Once things start looking especially dire for the store, the people of Passaic come together to help with the sweding. Production increases, as do the odds of raising enough money to save the store. This is WeTube.
It's refreshing to see Gondry's moviemaking still possessed by the community spirit he caught a few years ago with "Dave Chappelle's Block Party." That terrific documentary required the director, in part, to defer his own dreaminess to help make the dreams of some everyday people from Ohio come true. He filmed their trip to an all-day, all-star concert Chappelle put on in Brooklyn.
The movie was full of celebrities, but amazingly Gondry made no distinction between the kids in the marching band and Kanye West, Erykah Badu, or Mos Def, who stole his scenes from behind a drum kit. Mos Def is as pragmatically hilarious in this new movie as Jack Black is epically obnoxious. If Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis had made a Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy by
Gondry's illusory summer-camp aesthetic (all the tricks feel done with Popsicle sticks, paste, and construction paper) is as accessible here as it is in his ads and music videos. In this movie, it's made to seem egalitarian: Anyone can do this. (Would that it were so.) But the situationists in the audience will be thrilled: Gondry makes art part of everyday social life. The remakes themselves double as tributes and feats of film criticism. I doubt I could better explain what's wrong with "Driving Miss Daisy" than to have Mos Def rolling his eye at Black's Jessica Tandy impersonation.
"Be Kind Rewind" is as civic-minded an adventure as "Block Party." But Gondry still refuses to succumb to the perceived limits of common sense or realism. His naivete (and his characters') bumps up against certain urban realities that may be too strong to ignore. The movie's title is an unheeded plea for mercy and a sense of history.
Gondry may have overwritten parts of his petition. There's a mythical subplot about how the video store was also the birthplace of the jazzman Fats Waller. But even that occasions a beautiful collection of scenes in which Be Kind Rewind productions shoots a movie about Waller, and one funny moment in which the cast and crew of the biopic stop in their tracks at the sight of Jerry, who mistakenly assumes he'll be playing Waller. Glover, who's great, takes him outside and gives him a lecture we see but don't hear. Presumably he's saying, "You're not Jack Blackface."
This is all a radical thematic departure from Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Science of Sleep." Now the director wants to build communities and connect people rather than dreamily personify the erasure of the bonds between them. The interiority and subconscious surrealist eruptions that seem so nocturnal in his other movies see the literal light of day in this one. And the sunshine here really does feel eternal. It comes from the sky and from street-level, too. It's in the faces of the charismatic men and women acting for his cameras and for Mike and Jerry's.
Of course, the reason for all this lightness is actually rather sad. Another local business is on the verge of biting the dust. You'd expect a magician obsessed with warping the rhythms of time - with rewinding - to stop the clock. But he bravely concedes that even he's powerless to stop this.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.