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by Mark Jenkins,
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FEB. 22, 2008

Cruel to Be Kind

By Mark Jenkins

Be Kind Rewind
Directed by Michel Gondry

Laugh Busters: Black and Def dress down Hollywood remakes.
(New Line)

ON SCTV, JOHN CANDY used to play Johnny Larue, the host of a street-interview program who often whined that the station was too cheap to pay for a crane shot. Larue finally got that shot, a now-cliched means of signifying a movie's end by propelling the camera away from the action and into the lofty distance, and so does Michel Gondry in Be Kind Rewind. Like the director's previous annoyance, The Science of Sleep, this movie extols the natural genius of whacked-out amateurs who make art from junk. You can't help but notice, however, that Gondry uses all the high-tech and big-budget devices he can muster to sing the praises of the small and crappy.

After directing two films written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry is now his own scripter, and his screenplays make Kaufman's clever but insubstantial work seem Stoppardian by comparison. Be Kind Rewind is a rag-pile of tattered ideas, hung on an indifferently structured framework. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) runs a struggling videotape-only rental shop in a decrepit Passaic, N.J. building he claims was formerly Fats Waller's home. One day, he announces he's going on a trip and leaves the store in the hands of his only employee, Mike (Mos Def). Fletcher instructs Mike to bar neighborhood weirdo Jerry (Jack Black), which turns out to be excellent, if unfollowed, advice.

After a Don Quixote-like assault on a local power plant, Jerry becomes magnetized, a condition that lasts just long enough for him to erase the store's entire inventory. Of all the possible solutions to this crisis, Jerry and Mike settle on the most difficult, and ludicrous: Filming their own versions of such customer favorites as Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, and Driving Miss Daisy. (The latter is most apropos, since its tale of cross-racial affinity is almost as patronizing as the French director's bid to reacquaint inner-city African-Americans with the tres primitif charms of Fats Waller.) Jerry and Mike's remakes are dreadful, but we're meant to believe that the customers love them. Supposedly, Passaic digs crud as much as Gondry does.

A sharper writer might have suggested that the store's patrons enjoy the homemade movies for their local color and slipshod production values. (After all, Jerry has a real-life equivalent in Tunisia, the subject of the recent documentary Tarzan of the Arabs.) Instead, Gondry introduces characters like Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), who can't tell that the shop's flicks aren't legit, and copyright lawyer Ms. Lawson (Sigourney Weaver), who takes the lame knockoffs so seriously that she arrives with an injunction.

The entrances of Farrow and Weaver, both shaky performers, spotlight one of Gondry's major handicaps: He can't direct actors. But then that's obvious as soon as Black bounces on screen, in one of the least controlled displays of his amok career. Brazenly, Be Kind Rewind finally becomes a hymn to populism and deconstructionism, as the neighborhood convenes to make a Fats Waller "documentary" whose deviations from fact are justified by Miss Falewicz's dictum that "our past belongs to us. We can change it if we want." This nonsense is underscored by shots of delighted viewers as the fake doc is shown, and finally a crowd that applauds the filmmakers -- audience-cuing hokum that would be egregious even in a mainstream Hollywood flick. According to Miss Falewicz, Jerry and Mike's films offer "heart and soul," but what Be Kind Rewind actually peddles is condescension and manipulation. Plus a crane shot.