Ah, Passaic, New Jersey! That crumbling, grumbling city across the Hudson from the gleaming skyline of New York, yet worlds removed from Manhattan magic. A place whose residents shiver in dour poverty, and whose most famous native sons and daughters had to leave town to make it big. The honor roll would include Joe Piscopo, Paul Rudd, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, Gilligan's Island creator Sherwood Schwartz, three-time Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz, sitcom regulars Loretta Swit and Larry Storch, sports hysteric Dick Vitale...and, Be Kind Rewind tells us, the legendary pianist and composer Fats Waller.
Venerable, dignified, marginally befuddled Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who runs the Be Kind Rewind Video & Thrift Store on what may be Waller's very birthplace, esteems the great Fats so highly that he has commissioned a documentary in his honor. Look closely at the lovingly reproduced footage at the beginning of the film and you'll notice some familiar current faces, belonging to Jack Black and Mos Def, among Waller's fellow citizens of the 1920s. It's as if they'd time-traveled to play Woody Allen's Zelig character in an American Masters episode on PBS.
Mr. Fletcher's store is its own adorable anachronism. The dominant poster is from Blast from the Past, and his stock is just that, since all the films available for rental are videotapes that obsolescent VHS format, the vinyl of home movie entertainment. DVD, in medium or high definition, is nowhere to be found in his rickety establishment, where Mike (Def) works behind the counter and Jerry (Black) lives in a trailer across the street and spends his time getting in Mr. Fletcher's grayed hair.
When the old man leaves on a trip he's actually casing the competition to see how they bring in the customers Mike is left in charge. But Jerry has had a little accident at a local power station: his body has been magnetized, and when he touches the video boxes he instantly erases all the tapes, rendering them useless. The demand by a stern lady of the neighborhood, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow, a living connection to the Zelig trope), to watch Ghostbusters sends the guys scurrying to make their own 20-min. version of the old Bill Murray comedy, and finish it by nightfall.
They rush off to the Passaic library to shoot the ectoplasm scenes, crack a couple of eggs for the special effects and borrow a young woman from the local dry cleaner's (Melonie Diaz) for the Sigourney Weaver role. (Later, the real Weaver shows up too, but not as herself.) The ruse is successful, Miss Falewicz likes their homemade version of Ghostbusters; and soon everyone in town is clamoring for the guys' rickety remakes of favorite movies, including The Lion King, Rush Hour 2, RoboCop, Boyz N The Hood, Driving Miss Daisy (with Black in the Jessica Tandy role), King Kong, Carrie, Men in Black, Boogie Nights, Last Tango in Paris, the 2001 sequel 2010 and It's a Wonderful Life.
The making of these underground movies gives Black a chance to put his usual ham on wry, and for Def to exhibit a gallery of eloquent shrugs. It's also a way for Michel Gondry, the French writer-director who worked with Charlie Kaufman on the Jim Carrey time-slip comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to bang home his point that all moviemaking, whether a tiny indie film or a Michael Bay extravaganza, are communal enterprises. The whole town not only lines up to rent Mike and Jerry's faux films, they join in their production, serving as extras and gofers.
The simple genius of Be Kind Rewind is that it is as scruffy and slapdash as the movies made by these Passaic Pasolinis. Inhabiting some border landscape between fantasy and nostalgia, it honors both the let's-try-anything impulse of the first filmmakers a century ago and the highly perishable look and feel of old videotapes, which most of you have consigned to the garage or the garbage. As someone who, over the past 20 years, has compiled a library of something like 10,000 movies on that ancient format and feels like some geezer still hanging on to his 78s far into the CD era I feel the devotion of Mike and Jerry to VHS, even as I wonder whether these tapes will disintegrate before I do.
"Our past belongs to us," Miss Falewicz finally says, enunciating Gondry's message. "We can change it any way we like." In strict movie terms, that sounds like Hollywood giving itself a license to maraud its old films: to show them chopped down to fit a TV time slot and a standard TV frame; to interrupt them every few mins. with commercials; to colorize them; to issue dubious re-cuts that, say, put decades-later digital effects in Star Wars and leave fans of the originals scrounging for copies the only place they're available...on VHS.
But in a larger sense Be Kind Rewind declares that the riches of cinema history touch each of us personally. Films become so deep a part of us that we own them that our memories of them, whether faithful or fanciful, become their meanings. As a movie critic and, even before and above that, a movie lover, how can I disagree with that?