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February 25, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | February 25, 2008 |

Michel Gondry shares an increasingly tiresome sense of whimsy with Wes Anderson. What at first seems novel about their work (maybe is novel about it) begins to feel affected and unaffecting. You can see why Gondry was a successful creator of music videos before his feature-film career … he’s inventive, playful, and most of his good ideas can be conveyed in three minutes, tops.

His latest, Be Kind Rewind, is set in the passed-over town of Passaic, New Jersey, where Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) work at a video store owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover). And yes, it’s a video store — like the rest of the town, the store is lagging behind the times, panting, and the shelves are stocked with VHS tapes, not DVDs. The setting is a strange choice for Gondry. Yes, he’s made a habit of planting his colorful, wonderstruck visions in everyday locales, but Passaic looks like the place whimsy goes to die.

While Mr. Fletcher is away on a mysterious trip — one of many half-baked elements in the script — Jerry, whose body has been magnetized in a freak accident, erases the store’s entire inventory. Panicked, he and Mike decide they’ll remake the first movie a customer asks for — Ghostbusters. Using a handheld camera, local sets, and ridiculous props, they make a highly condensed version of the classic spectral comedy. Against all odds (and logic, which Gondry’s never had much time for), the duo’s movies — including Robocop, The Lion King, and eventually dozens of others — become a smash hit in the neighborhood. One customer even drives in from New York City after hearing about the store, which is a small detail that helps but doesn’t overcome a strange condescension throughout. Gondry intended an homage to a raw love of movies, but he comes closer to implying that the store’s only fans are people so down on their luck that they’re grateful for even grainy, unscripted shams.

Rewind is good fun during scenes of re-filming, when it both sends up the originals and gets across an affection for old-fashioned movie thrills. But everywhere else, it feels like a step backward for Gondry. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep weren’t commercial blockbusters, but they felt like strong statements of artistic intent. By contrast, Rewind seems undeniably, almost purposefully minor, most charming when it’s least ambitious. As a meandering movie about two dudes from Jersey wasting part of a summer ineptly trying to rescue their store, it’s a success. But the larger story about community and gentrification and memory never coheres into something satisfying.

Looking back, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a documentary that chronicled the comedian organizing a no-frills concert in Brooklyn, might be Gondry’s best work. Chappelle’s a perfect surrogate for the director’s childish sense of wonder, but he cuts it with an adult sense of humor. And tethered to reality, Gondry’s more cloying instincts are kept in check — you never have to see Chappelle fly off into the clouds or grow a set of giant hands or start imagining the world as a giant diorama. In Rewind, the characters can be charmingly polite (Mike confronts trouble with the phrase, “What the duck?”), but there’s something so regressive about them that they seem more developmentally disabled than anything else.

The previews that preceded Rewind were for Semi-Pro, the two hundred and sixty-eighth consecutive movie in which Will Ferrell plays an arrogant, clueless character in a story that allows him to make the same jokes about a different subculture; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth installment of a smash series that debuted early in the first Reagan administration; and Superhero Movie, another monstrosity in the vein of Date Movie and Scary Movie. These were appropriate appetizers for Gondry’s film, since part of its argument goes like this: If Hollywood can keep making the same thing over and over again, why not two nobodies in Jersey?

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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