Hollywood films have become monoliths. They arrive market-tested and as carefully packaged as a new deodorant, made with bankable stars, safe directors, and scripts that had their edges shaved off long before the cameras started rolling. They're products padded for maximum safety and spoken of in careful talking points before being released to theaters. And then they take on lives of their own. What a film does—or fails to do—to a viewer is much more personal.
The question of who controls popular culture is at the heart of Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, and it's hard to imagine anyone else handling it with such a sure, light touch. It's as thoughtful as any movie involving Jack Black's magnetic urine dares to be. Showing as deep a concern with the happenings of a single neighborhood as Gondry's exuberant concert film Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Be Kind Rewind rarely strays from a corner in Passaic, New Jersey, home to the Be Kind Rewind video store owned by Danny Glover. VHS tapes line sparsely populated shelves, while other parts of the store do duty as a thrift store and a museum to legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller, who was born in the building that's now home to the store. (Or maybe not.)
When the forces of gentrification target Glover's crumbling store, he knows Be Kind Rewind's days are up. Even worse: While Glover is away studying his options, Black accidentally erases the store's entire collection, much to the horror of its manager, Glover's in-all-but-name son Mos Def. But soon Def and Black hit on a novel idea for keeping the business afloat: They decide to re-film the store's collection themselves.
Their new career—which begins with a remake of Ghostbusters and expands to include everything from 2001 to The Lion King—gives Gondry a chance to indulge some extremely funny examples of the handcrafted fantasies that have characterized his work from his music videos through last year's The Science Of Sleep. Ninety minutes of Black and Def stepping into Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker's Rush Hour 2 roles would almost be movie enough, but Gondry has more in mind. As the enforcers of copyright and enthusiasts of urban renewal descend on the shop, Be Kind Rewind becomes a kind of Alamo against the forces of homogenization. To whom do the places and things that shape our hearts really belong?
Gondry isn't an especially skilled storyteller. The film has energy but no real pace. The characters don't grow so much as hang around, and his script frays into a bunch of loose strands. But the visual wit, game performances (including a glowing turn by Melonie Diaz as a neighbor roped into small-scale movie stardom), and overflowing humanity have more than made up for the shortcomings by the time the film finds a final moment that's simultaneously abrupt and magical. And clearly not designed by committee.