Be Kind Rewind is a muddle — not amiably ambling, not affably shaggy, just a mess of a film that looks improvised by amateurs more concerned with being clever than affectionate. For the first time in Michel Gondry's scattershot career as a director — which includes a heartbreaking, mind-bending masterpiece (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) bookended by dazzling disappointments (Human Nature and The Science of Sleep) — Gondry seems completely lost. The greatest mystery, though, is how something peddling the bliss of moviemaking is absent any hint of joy.
It takes forever to get going: Mike (Mos Def) works in a ramshackle New Jersey rental store owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) — who, for whatever reason, has refused to shift his catalog to DVD. Not surprisingly, the store's in fiscal and physical ruin, and about to be torn down. Mr. Fletcher feigns an out-of-town trip to scope out shinier video stores, and Mike's left to run the store. The stock is ruined by the nincompoop Jerry (Jack Black), whose attempts to sabotage the nearby power plant have left him a walking magnet.
Mike and Jerry have to reshoot Ghostbusters for a customer (Mia Farrow), who happens to be Mr. Fletcher's eyes and ears in his absence. Turns out, she can't tell the real thing from the copy. But others in the neighborhood can, and soon enough the duo's ass-covering scheme becomes a full-service operation, with the guys taking requests from cinephiles and schmucks, who believe the haphazard makeovers the work of inadvertent auteurs.
There's no disputing Be Kind Rewind's attempt at sweetness — the movie's as sentimental as a tearstained get-well card. But it's too flat to work up any feelings. Gondry is a master of the intellectual side of filmmaking, but he has no idea how to wring emotion from his subject matter. Worse, Be Kind Rewind is a drab, flat-looking film, like something actually made by men for whom a camera's less a tool than a novelty item. Then there's this sad note: It's also just another Jack Black movie, only the low-rent Belushi was far more engaging a thousand years ago, slinging old records instead of remaking old movies. And that's trying to be kind.