The real Passaic, N.J., is a polyglot industrial city north of Newark, with a great immigrant history and a finger-snapping shortlist of showbiz native sons including Donald Fagen and Paul Rudd. The imaginary Passaic of Be Kind Rewind is an urban playground situated somewhere between Brigadoon and Sesame Street. In this town not so much forgotten by time as turned into a touristic Retroland and hobby camp by writer-director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), dreamers, doodlers, and people who like things just the way they’ve always been tend to hang out at the local video-rental store, Be Kind Rewind, a shop stocked in the Soviet-era Bulgarian tradition: If it’s not VHS copies of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, or a few other moldy crowd-pleasers you want, go to some other, more impersonal video-chain outlet across the street.
At Be Kind, time stands defiantly still. The store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), is a proprietor in the tradition of oldies about to be run over by the wheels of progress. He fights off modernity with a Frederick Douglass haircut and a passion for the late jazz genius Fats Waller. Mr. Fletcher is proud to claim that back in the day, Waller was born right upstairs from the shop; and in the face of insensitive civic plans for charmless urban renewal, he argues that the historical significance of the Waller connection ought to be enough to protect his corner from demolition. The old man is supported in his fight by his acolyte and employee, Mike (Mos Def), and Mike’s childhood friend Jerry (Jack Black), a local mechanic who lives in a junkyard trailer and fights the power, literally, of the local power plant in his considerable spare time.
Mike and Jerry bloom into full-tilt Gondrian characters when the latter has an ill-advised close encounter with the power plant’s electromagnetic field, briefly turns into a walking magnet, and accidentally erases every videotape in the shop. Mr. Fletcher is fortuitously out of town, so Jerry and Mike dream up a scheme. Whenever a customer requests a movie, the guys simply reshoot it, Ghostbusters being the test case. Their tools: found objects, local talent, and the kind of abundant whimsy in which the filmmaker has always earnestly delighted, from his first feature (Human Nature) to his most recent (The Science of Sleep).
The boys also inadvertently save the town. Be Kind Rewind is, on one level, then, about the magic that can happen in fairy tales — and only in fairy tales — when enough people who like the good old ways band together to keep things simple yet cunning, like the handmade-crafts e-tailers who sell on etsy.com. (Gondry’s French artisanal ethic finds its American counterpart in that of Wes Anderson, as does his Gallic liability to let his stories waft off into Euro-whimsy; this Passaic might as well nestle on the banks of the Loire River.) On another level, though, the movie is a sop to the indulgent prevailing notion that other people’s art is fair game as the raw material for our own funsy home projects — mash-ups are one of a dozen examples — and that group in-jokes count as citizen involvement. The Be Kind remakes catch, especially when marketed by Mike and Jerry as Swedish imports. (In Gondry’s twinky jargon, the new homemade version is said to have been ”Sweded.”) Ostensibly made out of little more than cardboard and love, these reconstituted movies are in fact sophisticated stylistic deconstructions — it just so happens that the supposedly average Our Town locals possess artistic skills worthy of a Bauhaus student ball.
Def doesn’t do much new, walking a familiar character line between earnest and simple; Black does even less new, running the same crazy-jerk-hipster machinery that was in peak operating condition five years ago in School of Rock. Still, there’s nothing not to like about the movie, a teensy, hand-crocheted trifle, fitted with embroidered pockets of guest stardom, including Mia Farrow as the nice local lady who wants to see what Ghostbusters is all about and Ghostbusters’ own Sigourney Weaver as a movie-studio corporate meanie, ha-ha. (Weaver appears to have wandered in off the set of Working Girl.) Then again, there’s no logic to hang on to either, in Gondry’s fiddle-di-dee suggestion that commercial movies are cooler when they are rewound into home movies with the production values of YouTube parodies. B-