-By Kevin Lally

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Nurturing a talent like Michel Gondry’s in the commercial feature film world has always been a very particular challenge. One of the most dazzlingly inventive directors in the music-video arena, Gondry stumbled with his bizarre first feature Human Nature, then triumphed with the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning headtrip Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Science of Sleep (2006) was wildly creative and often delightful, but undone by the laxness of his first screenplay written without his brilliantly fanciful collaborator Charlie Kaufman.

It’s a pleasure, then, to report that Gondry’s second solo writing-directing venture, Be Kind Rewind, is an ideal showcase for the talents that make him such a transatlantic filmmaking treasure. The Frenchman’s screenplay has its shaggy edges, to be sure, but the basic concept gives him license to explore what he does best: a childlike, DIY approach to moviemaking that beguiles as it astonishes.

Don’t be too judgmental about the narrative setup, just go with it: The action centers around “Be Kind Rewind,” a struggling video (as in VHS) store in economically depressed Passaic, New Jersey, run by the gentle Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover). When Fletcher takes a trip to attend a celebration of jazz icon Fats Waller (who he claims was born in the same building as his store), he leaves his assistant Mike (Mos Def) in charge. But things quickly go awry after Mike’s manic friend Jerry (Jack Black), a mechanic who lives in a trailer near the local power plant, decides to sabotage the plant and receives a whopping jolt of electromagnetic voltage. The powerfully magnetized Jerry unknowingly erases the entire inventory of videotapes in Fletcher’s store, which leads to some frantic improvisation when Fletcher’s close friend Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) arrives looking for a copy of Ghostbusters.

And thus the phenomenon of “sweding” (i.e., custom-made movies “imported from Sweden”) is born. Overnight, Mike and Jerry embark on a 20-minute Passaic remake of the Bill Murray comedy, using tinfoil costumes and hanging dime-store props above their digital camera. Snatching cinematic victory from the jaws of defeat, their homemade effort becomes a neighborhood word-of-mouth hit, and soon the duo are taking orders for more favorites like RoboCop, 2001 and (much to Mike’s chagrin as an African-American) Driving Miss Daisy. But will their efforts be enough to halt the city’s plans to raze the shop and its neighboring buildings and launch a new housing development called Olde Passaic Gardens?

The storyline is utterly improbable, but Gondry thrives in an alternate world of whimsy and conviviality, a fantasy ideal where neighborliness trumps self-interest. That was certainly the feeling generated by the director’s sunny documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, which brought comedian Chappelle and his musical idols to the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant for a very special day of unity. Filming on location in Passaic, with many local residents as extras and in small roles, Gondry creates a similar vibe in Be Kind Rewind, especially when the entire community participates in the joyous epic project that ends—and justifies—the film.

Along the way, those other mini-movies reflect Gondry’s handcrafted, anti-CGI aesthetic, so disarming in his classic music-videos like Björk’s “Bachelorette” and The White Stripes’ “The Denial Twist.” It’s fun to see the way Mike and Jerry deconstruct and replicate the essential moments from movies like Rush Hour and King Kong with the skimpiest of resources, though the guys must have learned a few camera tricks from watching Gondry videos themselves. (Movie buffs will note that there are an awful lot of obscure New Line titles being offered at “Be Kind Rewind,” which may be one reason Mr. Fletcher’s bank account is so low.)

Black brings his usual overabundance of energy to the role of Jerry, a borderline-certifiable egomaniac who at last finds his true métier. Mos Def smartly underplays it as Jerry’s incredibly patient friend, grounding the movie with his cool, likeable presence, while veterans Glover and Farrow supply bonus charm. But it’s Passaic, lovingly photographed by the gifted Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine), and its residents who are the real stars of this unusual, heartfelt valentine to community and creativity, a true movie for the YouTube era.

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