“Be Kind Rewind” is a playful conceit, smart and sweetly nostalgic in its simplicity, and appealingly but inescapably slight.
It does have a certain one-note charm: Jack Black and Mos Def play amiable types who film crude reconstructions of Hollywood blockbusters to save their friend’s video store, hastily reinventing the works of Brett Ratner and Paul Verhoeven with the sensibilities of junkyard auteurs.
The trailer-length, YouTube-style shorts that follow display a guerrilla approach to filmmaking liberated from big budgets and massive star egos. They reflect the naïve joy of neophytes whose inexperience is both comic and endearing.
Indeed, there might not be two souls in Michel Gondry’s colorful rendering of Passaic, N.J., more laughably inept than Jerry (Black) and Mike (Def). Mike works in Mr. Fletcher’s video store, a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall scheduled for demolition. Jerry, played with Black’s usual wild-eyed intensity, lives in a trailer next to the power plant that may or may not be melting his mind.
As played with unimpeachable dignity by Danny Glover, Mr. Fletcher is headstrong enough to run a VHS business in a DVD world, but sensible enough to realize that Jerry and Mike’s schemes are often steeped in silliness. When Jerry unwittingly demagnetizes an entire store’s worth of videos after a fateful trip to the power plant, he and Mike begin taping homemade movies as stopgap replacements. (The process, which fans on the Internet have already begun to imitate, is known as “Sweding” because, as Jerry explains, such handiwork is the product of Swedish ingenuity.)
Their efforts strike a chord in a close-knit community eager to embrace an unlikely pair of hometown heroes whose motto — “You name it, we shoot it!” — becomes something of a populist war cry against a culture of corporate soullessness.
Although Gondry is a stronger storyteller when he infuses his material with the romantic desperation that drove “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the criminally underappreciated “Science of Sleep,” this latest work is engaging and funny but comparatively insubstantial.
It’s easy to understand why he chose movies like “Ghostbusters,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “RoboCop” as targets for his affectionate satire. They are cultural behemoths so thoroughly ingrained in our collective consciousness that even the gentlest jabs resonate. But to what end?
Black and Def are generous physical comedians, and they throw themselves into their roles with abandon, but their energy seems somehow misspent in a film that never aspires to be more than it is. “Be Kind Rewind” is a whimsical adventure with genuine affection for its characters, but Gondry’s story is essentially weightless, a fanciful flight in search of a raison d’etre.
Be Kind Rewind (2½ stars)
Starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz
Written and directed by Michael Gondry
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes