Friday, February 22, 2008

Is there any filmmaker less cynical than Michel Gondry?

The French director, renowned for his innovative use of homemade special effects, is perhaps cinema’s most ebullient and childlike director, and his films are almost mystically disarming in their lack of cynicism, especially considering the jaded hipster milieu in which his work is most often celebrated.

His latest, “Be Kind Rewind,” is no exception. No doubt the film will take some critical flak for its total lack of disaffection, but anyone willing to buy into Mr. Gondry’s comic surrealist vision will find an affable pop-culture collage set in a movie lover’s fantasy world.

The story concerns the home-movie antics of Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), who, after a freak accident erases all the VHS tapes in the Jersey video rental shop Mike has been left to oversee, decide that their only hope is to remake all the films on an old-fashioned analog camcorder. Meanwhile, the shop’s owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), faces eviction from a condo developer.

As Mike and Jerry’s videos become unexpected hits, other characters come and go, including Miss Falewicz, a patron played by Mia Farrow. The story, though, is almost an afterthought. Mostly, it’s an excuse to string together amusing banter between the two leads and engage in endlessly quirky and inventive low-budget remakes of various home-video hits, including “Robocop,” “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour 2.”

Mos Def and Mr. Black make for a delightfully dopey duo. Mr. Black plays a variation on the spastic loser he’s been playing since “High Fidelity,” and he occasionally goes over the top, but he’s usually saved by the befuddled bumbling of Mos Def. After similarly loopy turns in “16 Blocks” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the latter has turned off-rhythm mumbling into a minor art.

In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep,” Mr. Gondry showed himself to be a purveyor of quirky grade-school dreamworlds. Here, as before, he presents a universe that appears to have been cobbled together from items found in his grandmother’s attic. More than anything else, the message of his films seems to be that it’s amazing what you can make with cardboard and aluminum foil.

Of course, “Rewind” is more than a celebration of home-brewed craftiness. It’s also sort of a greatest hits album for anyone who counts himself a movie fan. Just as he has pieced his world together from whatever’s handy, he has built his film out of cinematic detritus. Like a more naive Quentin Tarantino, he has made a pop-culture collage out of the movies that he loves, filtered back through his own strange, silly imagination.

The film’s absurdist strain runs deep — in the concept, of course, but also in the dialogue and the meandering, seemingly improvised scenes. In one scene, everyone in a diner chimes in about his or her love for “The Lion King,” which Jerry, in his typically dim but enthusiastic manner, describes as “deeply deep.” The whole film hums with a goofy, low-key weirdness befitting the film’s equally goofy, low-fi aesthetic.

A running thread suggests that the formulaic mass production of consumer-driven capitalism destroys that which is fun and unique. After studying the offerings at larger, more commercial chains, for example, Mr. Fletcher tells his employees that they “need to adapt to the market.” Later, Miss Falewicz declares that they should simply be “stockholders” of their own happiness. The heavy-handed messaging threatens throughout to become an irritation, but the film’s good-heartedness keeps it in check.

In fact, that’s true of the film as a whole. The final scenes, in particular, drip with the sort of high-density schmaltz that should be an automatic turnoff. Yet it’s all so genial and effortlessly good-natured that it’s impossible to dislike. “Be Kind Rewind” ultimately may be too sweet for its own good, but it’s a delightful confection all the same.


TITLE: “Be Kind Rewind”

RATING: PG-13 (Language, mild sexual innuendos)

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

CREDITS: Written and directed by Michel Gondry



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