The premise of "Be Kind Rewind" should be taken not with a grain of salt, but with a ton. And that's only the first of its many problems.
Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) owns a video-only rental shop in Passaic, N.J., in a dilapidated building he claims was the birthplace of jazz great Fats Waller. Since the building is slated for imminent demolition unless it can be brought up to code, Fletcher slips out of town on a fact-finding mission. He leaves the store in the care of clerk Mike (Mos Def) with strict orders to bar the entry of local roustabout Jerry (Jack Black), who carries out a commando raid on the local power plant and, as a result, is electrified and becomes a walking magnet.
Now here's where that ton of salt comes in. Jerry saunters through the video store and promptly erases its entire inventory. Instead of replacing it, or switching to DVDs, Mike and Jerry, along with co-worker Alma (Melonie Diaz), re-enact the movies as hasty home movies and fob the videos off on their customers. Although at least one of the renters, a shy homebody played by Mia Farrow, can't detect the scam, the other regulars do – and they prefer the mock-ups to the originals!
Writer-director Michel Gondry made two movies scripted by Charlie Kaufman – the misfire "Human Nature" and the overrated "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" – and wrote and directed "The Science of Sleep," a Charlie Kaufman wannabe that had some sweet moments. He's a classic case of a director who needs a good writer to rein in his worst impulses. (And although Kaufman is a great screenwriter, I much prefer the scripts he wrote for Spike Jonze.) With almost zilch narrative sense, and a wayward grasp of character, Gondry falls back on pretty pictorials and head-trip phantasmagoria.
Would it have killed him, in this contemporary-set film, to at least acknowledge the fact that video-only rental stores are extinct? Or that just a few paying customers might react less than warmly to a video reenactment of "Robocop" or "2001" or "Driving Miss Daisy"?
The reason he doesn't make an issue of all this is because (a) being literal-minded is so square and (b) he wants to show us how movies can create a peace-loving community of kindred spirits. The message here is: We can change the world for the better, one movie at a time.
The Passaic he shows us is a racial melting pot with gang elements and police patrols but somehow the video-store extravaganzas bring everybody together. It's a peculiarly infantile view of movies – of art – and if you're in the right hazy frame of mind, it almost makes sense.
The notion that we want to act out our favorite movies is not so outlandish. I remember attending a film festival once which featured a student-made, feature-length, scene-by-scene knock off of the first "Indiana Jones" movie, and it was a hit. (George Lucas and Steven Spielberg apparently granted some sort of limited waiver.)
But there's also something obnoxious about Gondry's thesis: It implies that the reason we love our favorite movies is because we want to become them. We want to be children again. For such a supposedly sophisticated cineaste, Gondry is surprisingly stunted. For him, all the world is a Romper Room.
Maybe this us why he encourages his performers to carry on like toddlers. Not that Jack Black needs much encouragement. If Gondry needs a screenwriter, Black needs a director. Let loose here, he mugs so much that you wonder if anybody connected to this film – least of all Gondry – ever bothered to look at the rushes.
No doubt "Be Kind Rewind" will soon make its way to – um – DVD. Grade: C–
• Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.