Michel Gondry’s autobiographical documentary, which is available on a DVD collection called “The Work of Director Michel Gondry,” is titled I’ve Been 12 Forever. That’s a pretty good summary of Gondry’s strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Like a 12-year-old boy, Gondry is playful, endlessly imaginative, and willing to try anything. And, like a 12-year-old boy, he can be horny, undisciplined, self-indulgent, and silly. He’s at his best when his naiveté is tempered by the crackling intelligence of Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Gondry’s wild and woolly feature debut, Human Nature, and also his best film so far, the sublime Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But when Gondry directs from his own scripts, his ability to tap into his child mind can start to seem like regression.
The Science of Sleep (2006) made this regression its explicit subject. The hero, played by Gael García Bernal, was a dreamy, reclusive artist who was ultimately too passive and childlike to land the girl of his dreams (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But Gondry’s latest, Be Kind Rewind (New Line), is an unambiguous celebration of the state of preadolescent fixation. The movie is perhaps best understood as a 12-year-old boy: You want to give it a hug and then yell at it to pick up after itself.
I won’t set the story up as laboriously as Gondry does: Essentially, all you need to know is that Mos Def and Jack Black play Mike and Jerry, two friends in Passaic, N.J., who get themselves into a scrape at the video store that Jerry manages. While the store’s owner, Mike’s adoptive father, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), is out of town, Jerry accidentally erases all of the store’s tapes. (Why? Because he’s turned himself into a human magnet in a failed attempt to sabotage the town’s power plant.) In a frantic attempt to replace the store’s inventory before Mr. Fletcher returns, Mike and Jerry get out an ancient video camera—the kind into which you insert a VHS cassette—and proceed to re-enact Ghostbusters just in time to rent the tape out to a longtime customer (Mia Farrow). “I’ll be Bill Murray; you be everyone else,” Mike tells Jerry as they rush to the town’s library to shoot the opening scene, using coat hangers and colored Christmas tinsel to re-create the special effects.
To keep your patience with this idiosyncratic, sometimes ramshackle movie, you have to accept the surreal premise that Mike and Jerry’s scruffy DIY remakes instantly become the talk of Passaic. Soon people are lining up outside the store to have their favorite movies “Sweded” (a term Jerry comes up with to convince customers that the 20-minute-long “remakes” are produced in Sweden). Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, When We Were Kings, Robocop—no late 20th-century blockbuster is safe from the boys’ jury-rigged retooling.
The single best reason to watch Be Kind Rewind is for the ingenious sight gags during the moviemaking montages that make up the movie’s middle section. To re-create the climax of Rush Hour, in which Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan dangle high above a city street, Mike and Jerry hang from a jungle gym a few feet above a child’s game board representing a town. A pizza stands in for a pool of blood under a dying gangsta’s head in Boyz n the Hood. The famed shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey of an astronaut walking 360 degrees around the perimeter of a spaceship is re-created by turning the camera on a washing-machine motor (which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Kubrick must have done, too). The visual imagination and folksy craftsmanship of this part of the movie finds its perfect home on YouTube, where you can watch a selection of Mike and Jerry’s Sweded films (or, of course, Swede and post your own).
In my delight at describing the Sweding sequences, I’ve neglected to even mention a subplot about the takeover of Mr. Fletcher’s video store by gentrifying developers, which eventually, and heavy-handedly, dominates the film and drains it of its anarchic energy. But it’s hard to get too cranky about a movie that, at heart, is a tribute to the joy of making things with your friends. As its title indicates, Be Kind Rewind is also a valentine to disappearing analog technology—typewriters, VCRs, and Depression-era radios are tucked into the corner of nearly every frame. While the sentimentality of the Capra-esque ending, in which the whole town comes together in an attempt to save the video joint, feels unearned, the film’s closing image still imparts a powerful sense of melancholy. The overhead shot of the townspeople as they gather to watch Mike and Jerry’s last masterpiece suggests that the wonky, predigital, let’s-make-a-movie world of these childlike Passaic dreamers is about to be permanently erased.