(The following review ran during the Sundance Film Festival, but we're re-posting it now to coincide with the film's theatrical release.)

In Passaic, New Jersey, the thrift store and video rental emporium Be Kind Rewind offers customers their choice of films to rent, if by 'choice,' you mean 'VHS only.' But while owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) is away, his counterman and almost-son Mike (Mos Def) lets Jerry (Jack Black) into the store, against Mr. Fletcher's instructions not to. Jerry is normally a walking disaster -- a dreamer of a mechanic, obsessed with the belief that the power plant he lives near is flooding him with radiation. A failed attempt to sabotage the power plant leaves Jerry energized and magnetized to such a degree that his mere presence wipes all of Be Kind Rewind's inventory. When loyal customer Ms. Kimberly, tasked by Mr. Fletcher to check in on the store while he's away, comes in to rent Ghostbusters, Jerry and Mike's solution to the crisis is hardly logical, but certainly inspired: Produce and shoot a replacement version of the film within 24 hours so she'll be none the wiser about the store's ruined inventory.

But Ms. Kimberly shows the film to some of her foster children, who can recognize that Jerry is not quite Bill Murray, and that Mike is not quite Ivan Reitman, and that holding the right-hand side of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" up to the camera is not quite a special-effects shot of a demon-haunted landscape. The foster kids -- thugs and toughs to a man -- come around Be Kind Rewind the next day. But they're not mad; they're curious: "That was pretty good. What else you got?" And other customers are curious about the store's new selections -- which, it's explained, come from Sweden, which is why they cost $20 and you have to request them 24 hours in advance. ...

Written and directed by Michel Gondry, Be Kind Rewind is as much a work of creativity and passion as the re-shot, cut-in-camcorder, home-brew "Swedish Import" re-made Hollywood blockbusters that it revolves around. And, much like Jerry and Mike's re-shot versions of Driving Miss Daisy or Rush Hour or The Lion King, Be Kind Rewind is a film where the plot is less important than panache, where the lack of elegance is made up for by an excess of enthusiasm. Jerry and Mike aren't just shooting day for night; they're shooting day for night, male for female, white for black, Jerry for Jackie (Chan, that is). Aided and abetted by Alma (Melonie Diaz), an early recruit to their shooting requirements (they need a girl for Rush Hour), the store's new offerings rapidly become a sensation, as customers line up to request new films they want to see the 'Sweded' versions of and rent the rest of Jerry and Mike's oeuvre as soon as other customers bring them back. This not only makes Jerry and Mike celebrities (or, more correctly, sub-lebrities) in Passaic, but also may raise the money that Mr. Fletcher's store needs to come up to the building code and avoid being shut down. ...



Right now, you're thinking that element, the "We gotta save the store; let's put on a show ..." plotline, sounds like the least interesting part of Be Kind Rewind. Well, watching the film I think it's fair to say Gondry agrees with you; that thread's undeveloped, under-written, unresolved. (In an interview I conducted with Gondry, he essentially stated that the 'save the store' plot was recommended by a producer as an add-on to his original script to help lend urgency and structure to the film, and not his idea at all.) Be Kind Rewind is about feel more than focus -- and who cares about a storyline when you have Jerry and Mike's re-imagined films, with their inventive camera tricks and dime-store magic, to fill the screen?

Much like The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind takes place in a universe full of childlike charm and hand-made wonders. Gondry's recent films feel like a goofy, giddy glue-marked manifesto proposing that the ideal state of human endeavor would not be the marketplace of capitalism or the shared village of communism but instead one vast 4th grade arts and crafts project. And, frankly, there are worse visions to have. Be Kind Rewind, like last year's great Sundance film Son of Rambow, is a celebration of the power of film and the joy of the movies; not just great art, but also great trash. Recreating a '80s action classic, a scrap-metal-clad Jerry barks how "Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court ... of RoboCop!" And if Peter Weller never actually said that, well, maybe he should have. Jerry, Mike and Alma have to come to grips with their newfound fame and artistry (Jerry exclaims of their first film that "Our version is better than the original! ") and their limitations (Mike replies:"Our version is 20 minutes!") They also face the force of law: a sneering suit from Hollywood (a perfect one-scene cameo too good to spoil) tells the filmmakers "I appreciate your creative vision, but let's be realistic ..." as she slaps down lawsuits and seizes the tapes.

But when has a Gondry hero -- from Human Nature to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to The Science of Sleep to now -- ever shown any interest in being realistic? Mike, Jerry and Alma all discover themselves, or re-invent themselves, as part of the store's rebirth. Def is warm and funny and uptight; Black tones his usual mania down to a slightly more comfortable level; Diaz counters Def's low-key charm and Black's high-strung mania as required. More importantly, in time, Jerry and Mike and Alma go from simply aping other films to inventing their own. Jazz great Fats Waller was from Passaic; Mr. Fletcher tells everyone how Fats was born in his store. And as Mike tries to move beyond mere imitation to creation, Fats Waller is brought to life through the hands and hearts of all of Be Kind Rewind's customers. ...

I could appreciate the whimsy and charm of Be Kind Rewind, but I also knew that bright whimsy and hand-made charm was pasted over almost nothing; still, as we all learned in 4th grade arts and crafts (and Gondry may have learned all too well), just because paper-mache is hollow doesn't mean it can't be pretty. At the end of Be Kind Rewind, as Passaic gathers to see the film they've made about favorite son Fats Waller, you see the crowd's curious, glad faces caught in the flickering light of the film they've made out of community and conjecture and lies and crazy talk, changed by movie magic and the magic of movies from consumers to creators. And in that moment, Be Kind Rewind captures two very different reasons behind why we watch the movies; to get a glimpse of ourselves in them, and also to glimpse lives unlike anything we've ever known. After his distinctive video work, Gondry came to prominence in film collaborating with Charlie Kaufman on his first two films (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine). In retrospect, it's readily apparent that Kaufman's sense of story, bizarre though it may be, was a firm and guiding presence to Gondry's process. The Science of Sleep, from Gondry's own script, suggested that on his own he may have been more interested in well-crafted props than well-crafted plots, more invested in scenery than story. Be Kind Rewind confirms that Gondry's own films are more like dreams than movies; full of imaginative visions, fun while they're happening, easily punctured by reality, and as pleasant as they are impermanent.

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